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Vol. 16, No. 2, 2017
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will it work



David Booth, a syndicated columnist and senior writer for the National Post's weekly Driving section, is one of Canada's leading automotive journalists. For more of Dave, click here.

To some it will seem like libertarianism run amok with 4,000-pound automobiles as the weapon. To others, it will be Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” righting the chaos that is the everyday urban traffic we all curse. Whatever the case, the Shared Space concept, which calls for the complete abolition of traffic laws, is the singularly most revolutionary — some would say scariest — idea ever applied to traffic management.

Since 1982, a few cities in the Netherlands (more recently, Bohmte, Germany, and even West Palm Beach, Fla.) have been experimenting with the almost total elimination of the traffic regulations that govern modern driving. That means no traffic lights, no stop signs, not even the bicycle lanes that cyclists so vociferously promote as mandatory for their safety. Hell, there aren’t even any pedestrian crosswalks, that one truly demilitarized zone where even the smallest and most vulnerable of pedestrians are free to roam our roadways. The only rules are mandatory speed limits and guidelines for rights-of-way at intersections, our good behaviour dependent only on our social consciences.

As incredibly naïve as that may sound, for Hans Monderman, the Dutch civil engineer credited with traffic management’s radical revolution, traditional rules of the road make motorists and pedestrians not only stupid, but also overconfident, diminishing the attention they pay to their surroundings. Only by giving drivers the full responsibility for the consequences of their actions, says the Shared Space philosophy, do they become fully engaged in the art of driving. “When you don’t exactly know who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users,” Monderman told Deutsche Welle in 2006. “You automatically reduce your speed, you have contact with other people and you take greater care.” Indeed, the whole process comes down to eye contact, pedestrians now responsible for making sure car drivers see them, while drivers must be always at the ready — as opposed to only paying attention at specific designated spots — for pedestrian and cyclists intruding on their thoroughfare.

If it all seems to require a little too much faith in human nature, the good news is that, in certain circumstances, it works. Though implementation is still rare, at least some cities are reporting dramatic improvements in road safety. In the absence of strictly codified behaviour, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians all report more civility.

That said, there are numerous naysayers, perhaps the vociferous being advocates for the visually impaired, who note, rightfully, that the eye contact at the root of Shared Space’s social contract is not possible for their community. And the system would seem more successful in small towns than big cities, the awareness of the need for personal responsibility so crucial for Shared Space’s success a lot easier to communicate in a closed community than in a large rambling metropolitan area such as London, England. Indeed, even in Bohmte, Germany, one of the towns crediting Shared Space as a boon to road safety, the locals’ single remaining concern is of drivers entering their town for the first time.

More interesting — at least for those interpreting driving as a social experiment — is the cultural influence on the acceptance of the Shared Space concept. In Germany, with its history of libertarian driving (the speed-unlimited autobahn, for instance) and innate culture of individual responsibility, the implementation of Shared Space would seem a grand success. In authoritarian England, on the other hand, where every private citizen’s actions are ruthlessly recorded on closed-circuit cameras, the backlash against unregulated driving has been boisterous, a House of Lords report labeling the experiment “frightening and intimidating.” One English protester’s comment that “there’s nothing to tell me, as a driver, that I should let pedestrians cross the road” is a damning demarcation between British and German psyches.

Pedestrians can be their own worst enemies, but the onus is on drivers to be vigilant.

And where would we Canadians stand on the rights versus responsibility spectrum? All the authoritarians out there (the majority of Canadians, I suspect) who believe the only reason our country doesn’t descend into Nietzschean nihilism is a strict adherence to carefully crafted regulation, would be appalled at such a free-for-all, no doubt predicting all manner of doom and gloom. On the other hand, I would posit that the safest Canadian motorists ever drive is when there is an electrical malfunction at one of our traffic signals, complete civility — some would say fear — on display as drivers try to cross a signal-less four-way without crunching bodywork.

With our social conscience on display at every street corner, this might be the grandest cultural experiment ever conducted from behind the wheel. As a path to universal traffic management, Shared Space is almost assuredly doomed to failure. As insight into motorized morality, it is possibly the most intriguing experiment in 125 years of internal combustion.


For more of David Booth:
Fathers and Cars and Tergenev



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