Friday, April 30, 2010

The Age of Reason - wouldn't it be nice?

Photos: Jamilah0525, FlickrThe helmet law debate seems to be a political 'bush-fire' that all political managers resolutely avoid - is this because of their risk averse raison d'etre?

Further, compounded by the looming election next year, the NSW government is going into 'shut-down mode', and no doubt will attempt to dodge any contentious or even vaguely contentious issues at all costs. Careful managment will be the order of the day - the helmet debate (yes! that old chestnut again!) will definitely be shelved!

I completely sympathise with Oliver Hartwich's clarion call, "Political idol: why TV offers more creative answers than politicians", and fervently hope our political representatives take heed of his important call to arms.

His depiction of a Dutch town that ripped out all their traffic signs after a motoring tragedy is almost incomprehensible to us folk here in Australia. Apparently the town's first inclination had been to opt for the more usual municipal approach of speed humps, road signs and other such traffic calming devices but civic funding was neglible:

"What happened afterwards was a small miracle. Drivers felt they could no longer rely on road signs, so they slowed down. Seeking eye contact with other motorists and pedestrians, the streets of Oudehaske became a much safer traffic environment than ordinary road signs could have ever created. The inventor of the scheme, the late engineer Hans Monderman, went on to successfully export his idea of the ''naked street'' to other cities in the Netherlands and abroad."

Hartwich clinically muses whether such a scheme would be considered by Australian politicians, and sadly his summation would be our reality:

"Probably not, and definitely not with less than a year to the state election. Our reflex would be to give the RTA more power, put up a few more signs, install more traffic cameras and increase random breath tests. We would never imagine that we could have achieved much more with less."

Wake up, pollies, we need you to represent us, not manage us; we need your bright ideas and your innovations, and we need you to listen to the experts when you spend our taxes contracting their opinions

...just imagine...Sydney and 'naked streets' - what a thought! - could be so exciting!, Kristina, up for it? - could be your big break!


  1. Don't get too blown away by naked streets: people who live on or near them are not always as keen, and where we have them locally drivers tend to just blast through as if they are normal roads, not spaces where children are allowed to play and cars are limited to 7km/h. I've seen cars bully their way through these streets and push anyone out of the way that dares walk on 'their' space, and parents are very jumpy about keeping their children out og the way.

    I've had several 'discussions' with drivers on this, usually after they get annoyed that I'm riding in the middle of the road at 7km/h and not moving out to let them overtake. Their attitude is usually vary aggresive and they seem almost offended that anyone should actually expect cars to share the road.

    At first drivers are more cautious, but familiarity seems to breed contempt.

  2. Oh please! Everybody's always talking about Monderman's succes, blah blah blah, but fail to mention that it *wasn't* in *reality* the succes Monderman claimed, and that the cyclists (aka 'the entire population') of the Netherlands *don't* like shared space. Shared space is a disaster. We hate it. The car-drivers hate it, the cyclists hate it and the pedestrians hate it. All that nervousness (presented above as 'a small miracle' because all participants had to *constantly* watch *everybody's* next move - which sounds nice but in reality means that everybody is constantly on edge for fear of crashing, adrenalin pumping through veins, tempers fraying) did not meant that cyclists were better off than before. Quite the contrary. Before, cyclists had their own traffic lights, and could rely on traffic rules and traffic lights to keep them safe. Rip them out and you have a free-for-all. Which is one thing if you're driving in a heavy armourplated car, but quite another if you're a vulnarable cyclists.

    Monderman was a typical child of the sixties and seventies, with his 'away with restraining authority' attitude, but we *need* restraint and authority to protect the most vulnerable among us. Don't believe me? Read 'Lord of the Flies'.

    You want good infrastructure, not the abolishment of any structure at all.

  3. thank you, workbike & marionros, it's good to read your insightful comments

    - we certainly do need good infrastructure here, in fact we need everything we can get here! - the idea of the 'naked streets' seems so very appealing, and so very foreign to what we experience in our current 'sharing of the road culture'

    - the motor vehicle is 'emperor' and motorists fiercely defend 'traditional motoring territory' - reading about Monderman's traffic concept made me feel very wistful for creativity, intitiative and political will

  4. I cannot see that the idea of naked streets is so bad. I think where they are used needs to be carefully chosen. If you tried it on every single street it would of course be a disaster. But on otherwise blocked off residential streets that are not open to through traffic, I think it is a great idea.

    Having said that, the principle behind it clearly works. Recently, the traffic lights at a busy junction in our city failed. Motorists and pedestrians just had to work it out. Traffic automatically slowed down, people took turns to decide which direction had a right of way and at regular intervals the traffic would just stop to allow pedestrians to cross. The traffic was slow but continued to move. In fact, the queues were shorter than they usually are when the lights are working. I saw only one driver who had to brake a little. He was only travelling at about 15km/h so it didn't matter. There was no honking of horns and no abuse.

    In the right places, leaving people to work it out themselves definitely works.

  5. Hi Sue,

    I don't think we should reinvent the wheel here. I read a blog post on David Hembrow's site a while ago about this very topic. It appears to be a very bad idea despite sounding like a good one! It is an excellent read:

    I think we should consistently push for separated infrastructure to make cycling safe, anything less is a poor compromise. People need to feel safe and having cars separated (even if it is by a small gutter) helps enormously to this feeling of 'subjective safety'.

    Perhaps when normal people feel subjectively safe they will feel even more strongly against mandatory helmet laws? Maybe ditching the helmet law will be a consequence of quality, separated infrastructure?


    Paul Martin
    Brisbane, Australia

  6. Have you seen this

  7. Edward, love your post and your belief that it can work - we're so highly managed and 'parented' on the roads we've forgotten how to actually drive to the road conditions - the 'naked street' notion appeals to me - didn't they try this out in Oxford Circus, London?

    Paul, helmet laws have to go and I'm not waiting for separate cycling infrastructure

    Andrew, no I hadn't but I have now (thank you!) and it's brilliant & really motivating!!

  8. Having read what Paul wrote though, I can see that the notion of naked streets cannot be used everywhere. What I saw worked well because it was novel for everyone. What would be interesting is to see how everyone went after a few weeks or months. On the wrong road there is a potential that people in cars will feel more powerful and begin to bully once more. I think this type of thing is best suited to quiet residential streets that are otherwise blocked to through traffic. On wide and busy city streets, I think you need a separate Dutch "fietspad".

  9. Until Australia borrows the following ideas from the Netherlands, naked streets should remain firmly off the agenda, even for residential streeets:
    1. Strict liability
    2. 30km/h speed limits for residential/commercial streets.

    Until these are set in place, naked streets would be a cruel joke for pedestrians and cyclists.

  10. Sue,

    I think helmet laws have to go as well, without doubt, but for most ordinary folk, who haven't really thought about the issue critically, the thought of repealing these silly laws just doesn't enter their minds.

    My point was that it might enter their heads when they realise there is certainly no point cycling around with a helmet on bike paths when they're perfectly safe doing so - given that most people erroneously think that they are useful in an impact with a motor vehicle.

    On their safe cycle routes, they might think, 'maybe these helmets are a waste of time?', even though, of course, they've ALWAYS been a waste of time!

    On the 'shared' streets. We have a couple in Brisbane which line the mall but it is for cars (trucks mainly) and pedestrians only. Bicycles are banned. There is not even one bicycle stand on the Queen Street Mall (plenty of ashtrays though...).


    Paul Martin
    Brisbane, Australia

  11. Edward, Taliesin and Paul, you are all completely right, and if all your suggestions were implemented tomorrow we'd be better off immediately - health, transport and civil liberties just for starters - but I just can't help thinking how lovely the notion of 'naked streets' sounds.

    In Newtown, the residential streets are very narrow, full of cars, bicycles, push-chairs, dogs and pedestrians - and as far as I can see as a cyclist, people seem to go carefully, and peacefully - of course King Street is a different kettle of fish - then it's really funtimes! - and perversely, I'd love to see a 'naked street' there!

    ...I do understand what you're all saying though!