Here's Proof Sign-Free Intersections WorkS

You think the idea of sign-free crossings is nothing but a libertarian dream? Think again. A broken traffic light in a major Budapest intersection reveals how beautifully humans adapt to chaos. Video below.

We’ve recently published a piece by Tom Vanderbilt on the work of Hans Monderman, the Dutch traffic engineer who thought up the idea of shared space—that is, designing traffic intersections for cars, bikes, and pedestrians with near-zero regulation. I’ve been reading about Monderman’s work for years, but have never seen in person an intersection designed on his principles. Until a computer error turned one in Budapest into Monderman space.

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The intersection in question, shown above, is quite a bitch. Located in the heart of Budapest, it’s the meeting of a 6-lane avenue with a 4-lane avenue at an acute angle. Two streets exit the crossing at yet more angles, flavored with four pedestrian crossings set at oblique angles to the road, and a single escape lane. Cars can go in any direction, which results in traffic flowing in weird ways when viewed from street level. Naturally, the place is a frequent point of congestion.

But not on a recent weekday evening. Every traffic light had gone to flashing yellow and the pedestrian signs had simply died. Observing the intersection in its fully powered state, one could conclude that the removal of lights would result in instant gridlock, but not so. With the crossing suddenly a seemingly dangerous and chaotic space, cars, pededestrians, limos, cyclists, and city buses leaped to attention and navigated their way across, as you can see in this video I captured (from the northwest corner, looking southeast):

This is exactly what Monderman’s theory is about. Remove signage and you remove the false sense of security that comes with them, thereby requiring every occupant of the intersection to suddenly become alert and aware.

If you have the patience for another two and a half minutes of cell phone video, here’s the scene from another angle (southwest corner, looking northeast), which shows heavier traffic reacting to the sudden lack of instructions:

Humans are not as dumb as we think. If we can react instantly and gracefully to the sudden removal of regulation, incidents like this sudden exercise in Mondermanism may lead us to consider that in cities with all sorts of vehicles sharing space at all sorts of speeds, the solution for safer and more efficient traffic flow may indeed be less rules instead of more.

Photo Credit: Steve Calcott