By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 24, 2007
BOHMTE, Germany -- Like countless other communities, this west German town lived for years with a miserable traffic problem. Each day, thousands of cars and big trucks barreled along the two-lane main street, forcing pedestrians and cyclists to scamper for their lives.
The usual remedies -- from safety crossings to speed traps -- did no good. So the citizens of Bohmte decided to take a big risk. Since September, they've been tearing up the sidewalks, removing curbs and erasing street markers as part of a radical plan to abandon nearly all traffic regulations and force people to rely on common sense and courtesy instead.
This contrarian approach to traffic management, known as shared space, is gaining a foothold in Europe. Towns in the Netherlands, Denmark, Britain and Belgium have tossed out their traffic lights and stop signs in a bid to reclaim their streets for everyone.
The assumption is that drivers are accustomed to owning the road and rarely pay attention to speed limits or caution signs anyway. Removing traffic lights and erasing lane markers, the thinking goes, will cause drivers to get nervous and slow down.
"Generally speaking, what we want is for people to be confused," said Willi Ladner, a deputy mayor in Bohmte. "When they're confused, they'll be more alert and drive more carefully."
The European Union has subsidized shared space programs in seven cities in five countries. Interest is spreading worldwide, with cities in countries from Australia to Canada sending emissaries to Europe to see whether the experiment works.
In Bohmte, a town of 13,000 people in the state of Lower Saxony, residents were tired of all the trucks whizzing along Bremen Street, the main route through the city. Since the street is categorized as a state highway, German law prevented local officials from banning trucks. They considered building a bypass instead, but merchants worried it would suck too many vehicles out of the city center, hurting business.
In 2005, city leaders learned about shared space and decided to give it a try. One of the biggest obstacles was persuading regional traffic bureaucrats to approve the unorthodox approach. "They were grinding their teeth, but finally they agreed," Ladner said.
On Nov. 26, a small section of Bremen Street -- absent signs and curbs -- reopened to traffic. With no marked spaces, people can park their cars wherever they want, as long as they don't leave them in the middle of the road. The new pavement is a reddish-brick color, intended to send a subtle signal to drivers that they are entering a special zone.
Only two traffic rules remain. Drivers cannot go more than 30 mph, the German speed limit for city driving. And everyone has to yield to the right, regardless of whether it's a car, a bike or a baby carriage.
Peter Hilbricht, a Bohmte police officer in charge of traffic planning, said the main intersection in town generated about 50 accidents a year before the changes. He expects the number to plummet, citing the experience of other cities that have embraced the shared space approach.
In Haren, the Netherlands, for example, the number of accidents at one intersection dropped by 95 percent, from 200 a year to about 10, Hilbricht said. "You can't deny the numbers," he added. "Half the world is eager to see what's going to happen with this program."
Old habits, however, can be hard to break. Especially in Germany, a rules-obsessed nation where people who dare to jaywalk can expect a loud scolding from other pedestrians, even if no cars are in sight.
Asked to give a personal demonstration, Hilbricht put Bohmte's lack of rules to the test. Picking a random spot, he bravely stepped into oncoming traffic and across the road -- an act that could have earned him a fine pretty much anywhere else in Germany.
Cars immediately slowed down and gave Hilbricht a wide berth, although he admitted that his police uniform may have worked to his advantage.
When a reporter tried the same thing, two approaching drivers barely hit their brakes, including one guy in a van who babbled away on his cellphone as he sped past.
Ladner, the deputy mayor, acknowledged that it could take a year or two before residents get used to the changes. But city officials are confident. They are spending $3.3 million to overhaul parts of Bremen Street by next summer and hope to expand the special zone gradually over the next 10 to 20 years.
"We're very optimistic," Ladner said. "If others can do it, then why not us? It will be difficult for some people, yes, but it can be accomplished."
Although shared space is attracting lots of attention in Europe, no one expects Germany to shut down its famed autobahns anytime soon.
The program is designed only for public spaces where pedestrians and cyclists share routes with cars. Traffic engineers say it could lead to gridlock if introduced in high-traffic areas, such as large cities.
Practically speaking, the shared space concept works only at intersections that attract fewer than 15,000 vehicles a day, said Juergen Gerlach, a professor at the Center of Traffic and Transport at the University of Wuppertal. The approach can backfire if it covers more than a half-mile of road at a time, he said. Otherwise, drivers would get too frustrated with the slow pace and bypass the area.
Some residents in Bohmte said that although something needed to be done, they remain unconvinced that doing away with all the street signs and safety measures will do the job.
"It's how people are these days -- everyone is in a hurry, everyone just takes off," said Maria Stolte, who pulled her Mercedes in front of a bakery in the no-sign zone to buy some bread. "No one looks or pauses or is courteous. I hope it will slow people down."
At the same time, she doesn't plan on taking her bike for a spin anytime soon. "I don't know if I will feel comfortable riding down this street," she said.
The baker, Gisela Luebbert, is also skeptical.
"What they have done is pretty, no question about that," she said. "They've done a nice job with the design, but was it absolutely necessary? I don't know. We'll see if it's worth all the trouble."