Why Don't We Just Do It in the Road?

A rhyming Hebrew variation of "Roads are for cars, pavements are for people" helped to educate generations of Israeli children. This neat division was also a practical rule of thumb for the country's transport engineers.

Yoav Kaveh
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Yoav Kaveh

A rhyming Hebrew variation of "Roads are for cars, pavements are for people" helped to educate generations of Israeli children. This neat division was also a practical rule of thumb for the country's transport engineers. However, a minority opinion, which originated in the Netherlands and is now gaining popularity in Western Europe, suggests coexistence between cars and people is possible.

This liberal approach emphasizes the social - as against the traffic-driven - character of the street. The concept of a "Dutch street" in which there is no hierarchy of cars and pedestrians was developed in the `70s. In the Netherlands it is called Woonerf - "bustling city square" - a place in which children play, adults watch the world go by, and cars crawl their pathway through it all.

Two years ago, in the little city of Drachten in northern Holland, the city council decided to take Woonerf one step further - it removed all the traffic lights, stop signs and yield signs from the busy main intersection of the city.

Damian Whitworth, a reporter for the London Times, filed this alarmist report: "Suddenly you are there. Traffic is approaching from the right, left, and ahead, as well as trying to turn across you. Pedestrians are launching themselves off the pavement. Cyclists - none of them is wearing a helmet - are whizzing through the traffic. It looks like chaos and you are about to make it much more chaotic by careering into the middle of it."

Many traffic experts in the Netherlands seem to believe that to create a safe intersection, it first has to be made dangerous. "The biggest mistake we transport engineers can make is to give people the illusion of safety. If there are lots of traffic lights and signs, people rely on them and don't use their heads," said Hans Monderman, who is responsible for safety in Drachten and the surrounding area. "What you need is eye contact between the users and the road. The human species is remarkably good at making eye contact and passing messages with a quick glance. It is a process that evolved with the first hunters, but it can be activated and implemented - on condition that the cars don't drive too fast, in other words, more than 40 kilometers an hour."

Since the road signs were removed, Drachten has not had a single accident that caused injury. Nor have there been any serious accidents at similar intersections in neighboring cities in which the system was implemented. "It is not coincidental that these ideas are being applied in Holland," says the architect Eyal Weizman, author of the book "Yellow Rhythms, A Roundabout for London" (Rotterdam, 2000, 010 Publishers).

"This is part of the process of privatization of the power of the state, power that works only through court orders, regulations and laws. All of Europe is undergoing this process, and Holland is leading the trend. The power of the state is gradually being eroded, and is being supplanted by self-managing systems, like this intersection. Holland is a very liberal country, and freedom of the individual is very big there. For instance they are very open to use of light drugs, liberal on homosexuality, and all that."

Joking, of course

Could you even imagine removing traffic lights from a busy intersection in Israel?

"That is already the case in Israel - everyone just ignores the traffic lights and signs anyhow. But seriously, people here are still light years away from internalizing the fact that the individual citizen is the authority from whom the rules and regulations that apply to him or her derive, and that the individual bears supreme authority for his own actions."

Dan Link, of the National Road Safety Authority: "To put it mildly, the character of the Dutch is not the same as the character of the Israeli. I would be cautious about trying anything similar in Israel. The Dutch have one of finest records in the world when it comes to road safety. For Israelis, who always feel the need to tinker around and be smarter than the other guy, this sort of loss of restraint would not lead to a positive outcome."

Superintendent Yoni Giz, a transport engineer at the Israel Police traffic department in Jerusalem says: "There is no way it could succeed. In Israel, even where there are road signs, people don't think twice about pushing their way into an already full intersection. Imagine what would happen without traffic lights. The police wouldn't like the idea, either. When accidents happen, without any road signs or any hierarchy it would be impossible to determine which driver was at fault."

Dr. Moshe Becker, an expert on transport and road safety: "It wouldn't work, and would even be very dangerous. Drivers would be left to make up their own rules, and there would be accidents and chaos. Culturally speaking, we haven't yet developed the norms that would permit something like this.

It will take many more years before the Israeli driver understands what traffic is, how to treat other drivers with respect, or how to drive a little more safely."

Israeli drivers are not yet ready to deal with an intersection into which traffic flows freely from every direction, although they have adjusted themselves with some degree of success to Dutch streets and traffic circles, which also make use of liberal and democratic traffic management ideas.

The first Woonerf planning in Israel was about 20 years ago on Engel Street, near Rothschild Street in Tel Aviv. Since that time, hundreds of Dutch streets have been built throughout the country. These streets, paved with interlocking bricks, do not have raised sidewalks. They do away with the traditional predominance of motor vehicles over human beings. Their narrow, winding layout dictates low vehicle speed. The rate of accidents on Dutch streets is considered especially lower. Even when they do occur, the results are relatively minor. A variety of studies show that 85 percent of pedestrians run down by cars traveling 30 kph survive, while only 15 percent do 50 kph.

Any excuse to feud

Nevertheless, Dutch streets cause other problems in Israel - maybe only in Israel. In Modi'in some Dutch streets have become breeding grounds for neighborhood feuds. Some home owners built storage sheds on sites that had been designated for parking, and park their cars elsewhere on the street. The street is blocked, traffic snarls result, car horns shriek and the idyll is shattered.

At the standard intersection, three types of conflicts may start between passing car drivers. The first is "merging" - two vehicles turn in the same direction and have to adjust their speeds accordingly. The second is "separation" - two vehicles travel in the same direction, one turns and the other goes straight ahead. The third is "cutting" - two vehicles are driving toward one another at a right angle, for instance one from south to north and another from east to west. Cutting is, of course, the most dangerous of all.

This conflict is nullified when you turn an intersection into a traffic circle that makes all the traffic flow in a single direction. During the British mandate, traffic circles were popular in city centers and at interurban crossings. Tel Aviv was built as a European-style city of circles. Old timers will recall the small round city circles in the center of which stood a policeman on a raised stand, directing traffic - Magen David Square, Hashoter Square, Michaelis, Mugrabi, Hamoshavot, and more.

But from the early `50s, many of the circles were replaced by intersections with traffic lights. The traffic light became a symbol of technology and progress and was even adopted by smaller cities that had little traffic, and circles did not come back in fashion until the `90s. Traffic circles are cheaper to build and maintain than traffic lights, but take up more space. Circles force drivers to slow down and are considered a safety boon. For instance, in Jerusalem's Talpiot industrial zone, at the intersection of Pierre Koenig and Hatnufa streets, 26 injuries were recorded in 1996 and 1997. In 1998, a circle was built and in the following two years, there were no injuries. In 2000, only two people were injured.

The biggest drawback to traffic circles is the limit they place on traffic volume. As soon as the number of vehicles flowing through a large square exceeds 2,000 per hour, the traffic roundabout becomes a vicious circle. It is hard to exit and even harder to enter. Kugel Square in Holon, which was built in the 1960s, is an example of one such circle, with three traffic lanes that cannot maintain freely flowing traffic patterns. An earlier attempt to install traffic lights failed. Stop signs are now being placed at Kugel Square.

Conversely, the Arc de Triomphe traffic circle in Paris successfully siphons traffic from 12 busy streets and handles about one million vehicles a day. Evidently rapid, orderly driving through a city square requires a high degree of responsibility and self-discipline.

These traits are still sorely lacking in the Israeli's driving culture.

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