Signs? We Don’t Need No Stinking Signs!

This post is by Clay Gump, a resident of College Park and member of the East Campus Community Review Steering Committee.

OosterwoldeThe topic of a recent East Campus meeting was traffic and how to plan for it. The East Campus project is going to present a challenge when dealing with the large mix of pedestrian, auto, and bicycle traffic. While the developer representative was detailing the options maintaining traffic flow I recalled a interesting concept I had read about in Discover Magazine called “Shared Space.” The East Campus project could very well present a fantastic opportunity to utilize this concept. Basically the idea is to remove all traffic controlling signs, signals, and rules. Sounds crazy right? Well the numbers sound promising. In the town of Drachten in the Netherlands one intersection had an average of eight accidents per year. After the signs were removed that number dropped to one per year while reducing congestion by 20 percent. Here is a fascinating video discussing this crossing.

The entire concept is based on the idea of perceived risk whereby all creatures (even the road raged commuter) will adjust behavior when there is a perceived risk. Having signs and marking telling the drivers exactly what to do actually discourages drivers to be aware of their surroundings. This might also explain why those with anti lock brakes drive faster and cyclist with helmets get into more accidents. Come to think of it it might also explain why I backed up my new car into a rock even though I had the “parking assist” option. Of course I could just be a bad driver.

Keep in mind this is not a traffic calming scheme or a pedestrian “zone” rather it is a way of incorporating a “community sense” to an area that encourages intermingling of all traffic types. Groovy man.

Another effort is on in the Kensington borough in London to “Declutter” the streets in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. They have reduced pedestrian accidents by more than 40 percent. Considering the safety history of Route 1 in general I think it is time to adopt some new thinking in how we design our intersections. Maybe East Campus could be a model for Shared Space design and give the folks at SHA something to think about when it comes time to improve Route 1.

7 thoughts on “Signs? We Don’t Need No Stinking Signs!”

  1. Sounds great but one minor problem. We are too stupid in this country for this to be successful. Seriously. Im not saying this in a condescending “Im smarter than you” kind of way, Im saying this in a “the culture of this country just doesnt get it” kind of way…….Europe “gets it” when it comes to public transportation (ie the Purple Line) and planning (ie this article, urbanism, etc). Here in this country, sadly, we just dont “get it”

    Sure this concept works in Europe but remember, the good old immediate gratification, I want the biggest fastest most expensive whatever and I want it now U – S – of A, the land of the biggie size SUV, the land of road rage, ranks in the mid to low 20’s (yes, you read that correctly, mid to low 20’s) in the world in Math and Science. Thats just one indicator of how far this country has fallen. The decline of the United States is a very real issue and not just political fodder. We seem to be more interested in Britney Spears’ meltdown or Tom Brady visiting his supermodel girlfriend in New York wearing a boot to protect a high ankle sprain (not to mention his illegitimate child born to a different woman) than we do the substantive issues like the decline of our once great nation….The rise (of China and India) and the fall (USA) of nations. The Roman Empire fell and we are doomed to history repeating itself if we do not fundamentally change the culture and politics of this country

    How is this little rant in any way relevant to our beloved East Campus, the Purple Line, and the revitalization of College Park? Its very simple: MONEY. With the collapse of the subprime mortgage market all of our big banks are turning to foreign countries (namely wealthy middle eastern ones) to bail them out. This will make financing all CP revitalization more difficult. The deepest recession in 30+ years has arrived and guess what folks, early indicators say its a global one. And the politicians havent a clue about (or are too afraid to point to) what needs to be done to get us on the right track. One of the candidates who WILL raise taxes only needs to study history and Keynesian Econ 101 and she will see that increasing taxes to increase gov’t spending will NOT solve our problems (it is proven time and time again that it worsens them).

    Wake up. If you like European ideals when it comes to light rail and urban planning, broaden your thinking and look at the culture and poor condition of this country and ask yourself, are you contributing to the problems or advocating the solutions?

  2. Another good article on the subject from Wired Magazine.

    Here is a good quote from that article that made me think of the East Campus project.

    Instead of widening congested highways, New Jersey’s DOT is urging neighboring or contiguous towns to connect their secondary streets and add smaller centers of development, creating a series of linked minivillages with narrow roads, rather than wide, car-choked highways strewn with malls. “The cities that continue on their conventional path with traffic and land use will harm themselves, because people with a choice will leave,” says Lockwood. “They’ll go to places where the quality of life is better, where there’s more human exchange, where the city isn’t just designed for cars. The economy is going to follow the creative class, and they want to live in areas that have a sense of place. That’s why these new ideas have to catch on. The folly of traditional traffic engineering is all around us.”

  3. Great idea. But I doubt it would work here. I think Americans have a totally different attitude when driving. I’ll give two examples.

    Example #1. Driving back from Indiana on the PA Turnpike I stopped off at one of the plazas. Seeing a parking space, I began to pull in to it from the top of the space. With my car 75% of the way IN the parking space, a woman driving a minivan proceeds to “challenge” me for the space. Pressing on the gas as if her van is a charging bull to force me out of the parking space. This is in driving snow. Being non-confrontational as I am, I backed out and found a spot right in front of the doors.

    Example #2. We’ve all experienced this I’m sure. You’re driving down a road and you see a car from a side street dart out in front of you in order to get in front of you, yet there is NOBODY and I mean NOBODY behind me. Meaning if they had waited until I passed, they wouldn’t have had to risk an accident. But for some reason, it was better for them to go right then, instead of shaving a few seconds off of their driving time.

    I won’t even mention the new fad of people making right hand turns for the left lane or left hand turns from the right lane on a four lane road. I see that every week.

    I say that to say I don’t trust people to share a space like that. As a society that is self-centered and believes the world owes them, I don’t think we’re ready for something like this. It’s a great idea. And in a perfect world, it would work. But not when I experience the disregard for human safety on the streets. Is there somewhere in NYC, LA, Chicago, or Miami with that setup? It would be great to have a test case in an area where there is a lot of road rage and senseless accidents.

  4. Jeuill,
    No doubt that this is a very new idea and as usual Europe is ahead of us in trying out these ideas. There is an example in of it being used in West Palm Beach Florida quoted in the article from Wired Magazine. (I’ve pasted the appropriate section below)

    The Shared Space concept is by no means a cure to the common road rage and general rudeness we all encounter on the highway however it does get one to thinking about the root cause for some of this behavior. Think about it. Our cars and highways have become a place where we are moving through the world around us while being completely isolated from it. As long as we follow the rules of the road we aren’t required to interact or pay attention to the environment we are driving through. The psychology of how drivers behave in this situation is something nobody had really thought about before. I think the idea here is to rethink how we design public areas where all forms of traffic interact.
    There is a very interesting PDF describing the concepts here.'/files/18445/SharedSpace_Eng.pdf'&linkID=130472

    Before I ramble on and on here is the quote about West Palm.
    In the US, traffic engineers are beginning to rethink the dictum that the car is king and pedestrians are well advised to get the hell off the road. In West Palm Beach, Florida, planners have redesigned several major streets, removing traffic signals and turn lanes, narrowing the roadbed, and bringing people and cars into much closer contact. The result: slower traffic, fewer accidents, shorter trip times. “I think the future of transportation in our cities is slowing down the roads,” says Ian Lockwood, the transportation manager for West Palm Beach during the project and now a transportation and design consultant. “When you try to speed things up, the system tends to fail, and then you’re stuck with a design that moves traffic inefficiently and is hostile to pedestrians and human exchange.”

  5. To all who think this is a good idea… College Park is not some rural town in the Netherlands. 8 accidents a year is paltry in comparison to the large number of accidents that occur in College Park yearly, even just at the intersection of Rte. 1 and Cherry Hill Road (an intersection that was, for a while, the worst in PG County).

    You can’t talk about rational risk assessment when you talk about College Park residents. We have all seen morons blow red lights at 80 MPH on Route 1. We all see (or sometimes don’t see) those idiots who hang out in the center lane of Route 1 in the middle of the night wearing all black. We all see people darting out in traffic even on campus, head down, hood on and iPod in their ears, oblivious to the 2-ton truck hurtling toward them.

    Do you really think these same people are going to rationally work out who has right of way in an unmarked, unregulated free-for-all intersection? People, especially in College Park, have a hard enough time following the rules that are there. What until the first football game of the season after East Campus is finished. Do you really trust drunk tailgaters to follow the rules? I don’t, and I think it’s a terrible idea.

  6. Danny is right…..too many people from NY and NJ come to school in college park!!!!!!!!!!!!! (I can say that because I came to CP by way of – and now live in – the public corruption – er um I mean the “garden” state)

  7. I think the whole rethink college park idea is great. I really hope it will revamp the image of the city of college park itself. This is a huge initiative and will require a lot of effort on the parts of the university and the city itself. I have taken a keen interest in the East Campus redevelopment initiative specifically. I think this is one of the more important parts of the rethink college park program. I believe it will affect many people, especially students.

    I don’t agree with everything the east campus redevelopment initiate plans to implements. Yes, most of the east campus is filled with old service buildings that are not really being used for anything and are just sitting there. I know that this initiative plans to destroy most of these buildings to make room for new businesses and shops, which I think is a good idea in the long run. But it is the issue of student housing I am concerned with.

    As everyone who is affiliated with the University of Maryland probably knows, the university is in a housing crisis. There is not nearly enough student-housing. People are being forced off campus or into triples. On campus graduate housing is almost non existent. The plan of The East Campus redevelopment initiative to tear down the student housing community of old Leonardtown is a very bad idea in my opinion. I know the East Campus redevelopment initiative plans to build more student housing eventually but why destroy already existing student housing when there isn’t even enough to go around at the moment? There must be another way to continue the East Campus redevelopment initiative without destroying already existing student housing.

    The East Campus redevelopment initiative brings up the negative aspect of gentrification. I am talking about displacement. This initiative will displace many students from their housing; this is a very bad move by the University, as they have a history of displacing students from on campus housing.

    As for the idea of ‘shared space’, I agree with the other people who have responded to this blog post. Although the idea of shared space has worked in Europe with success, I just do not see it happening her in the united stated. This isn’t to say that we are too stupid to have no signs. I just think it’s a way too radical change for us. It could possibly very dangerous and come back to bite the developers of the East Campus redevelopment initiative. Some might say the idea of shared space is more simple, but I just don’t see it happening.

    I have many opinions on the East Campus redevelopment initiative and I have compiled them into my own blog. I have related the plans of the East Campus redevelopment initiative into the concepts of the course Historic Preservation 200 which I am taking at the University of Maryland. You can see my blog at

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