What if a transportation agency tried to understand you, the traveler? Not for the sake of flattery, so that you would accept some second-rate solution to a traffic or transit problem, but rather so that the transportation network could evolve in favor of the people who use it.

How refreshing. How unlikely.

All too often, we find transportation agencies referring to us en masse as “customers,” and then when an individual traveler raises a concern, we get that look like they just saw something move in a trash can.

So let’s look at a way of thinking about the traveler that comes from overseas. The Netherlands’ Rijkswaterstaat (Directorate-General of Public Works and Water Management) — the transportation agency that deals with road users — gained some insight into how those users think and what they want. The goal was to help the customer use the product, otherwise known as the road network.

To convey this consumer-oriented thinking, the transportation agency now promotes “10 Golden Rules.” The rules, which include statements of fact and calls for action, are not alien concepts to many planners and managers in the D.C. region’s transportation agencies. In fact, some will be quite familiar to them. But it’s refreshing to see an agency pose the question “Who are we working for?” in such a prominent way.

Road rules

The Rijkswaterstaat’s 10 Golden Rules:

Rule 1: The road user is rather selfish.

Rule 2: The road user cannot do everything at the same time.

Rule 3: You can tell the road user to do something, but will he then do what he is told?

Rule 4: The road user accepts only the measures that he considers useful.

Rule 5: The road user will surprise you.

Rule 6: The road user has expectations and behaves as such.

Rule 7: What happens if things go wrong with the system or with the road user?

Rule 8: Tell the road user what is really important.

Rule 9: Do not confuse the road user.

Rule 10: Information must be visible, clear and understandable to the road user.

Far from flattering

The goal, according to a Rijkswaterstaat publication that advances the rules, is to create and maintain “a system everyone can cope with.” It certainly isn’t about saying the customer is always right: “We should not attach too much value to the opinion of the average road user. Be skeptical of the road user’s claims about being able to handle speed, or to perceive and process information.”

In this assessment, drivers on both sides of the Atlantic have much in common: “It is well known that using — even hands-free — a mobile phone while driving is dangerous, because it distracts you, but how many people phone when driving? These are the same people who say that a [variable message board] should contain more information than just that there is a traffic jam at the next exit. This shows that these people are unable to accurately say what they are able to cope with, let alone what others can cope with.”

The Golden Rules guidance regarding these road users concludes that “their status awareness leaves something to be desired.”

So if, as Rule 2 says, road users can’t do everything well at once, how should a road planner compensate? Suggestions include preparing the traveler well in advance for a potentially confusing situation. Post a warning well ahead of time that one exit will be followed quickly by another. And don’t put a lot of information in a spot where the traveler should be focused on the roadway.

Theory and practice

Joris Al, director of the Rijkswaterstaat’s center for transport and navigation, said the Golden Rules were developed for internal use. “It’s something we teach our staff to take into account every day with the public,” he said during a visit to Washington this winter for transportation conferences.

The Rijkswaterstaat has been in the infrastructure business for several hundred years. Dealing with auto traffic represented a midlife crisis. The mission of providing roads was viewed solely as an engineering task. “We used to look at traffic as an obstacle to having beautiful roads,” Al said. “It would mess up the beautiful things we had made as engineers.”

About a decade ago, he said, that approach started to crumble. “The traffic jams became unacceptable to the public. There was much more political interest in the congestion situation. We had a lot of accidents. There was a discrepancy between the way we were looking at our task and the way that politicians in the name of the general public were looking at our performance.”

The new mind-set as a public-oriented service provider, expressed in the Golden Rules, had a variety of impacts both on large projects, where reducing traffic disruption got a higher priority in the awarding of contracts, and on the everyday management of roads.

Rule 9, about not confusing road users, led to research in which travelers were asked to look at various road signs. “We used to have arrows pointing downward to indicate the best lane,” Al said. We did some research and experiments and put arrows upward, and it became obvious that there were far fewer lane changes. This sort of detail actually determines whether an accident is going to happen and result in congestion and dissatisfied customers.”

Rule 7 told officials to consider what happens when things go wrong. The agency’s inspectors were driving around in yellow vehicles to check roads. Stranded motorists watched them drive by. “They don’t drive by now,” Al said. They stop and see what’s the matter.

“It seems simple,” he said, “but it’s a great contrast to 10 years ago. . . . Sometimes, it’s plain common sense.”