The180·The 180

Taming traffic: What if our roads had no rules?

No stop signs or traffic lights may sound like a recipe for chaos, but the 'shared space' concept of roads without rules is getting some attention, with cities from the Netherlands to Florida giving it a try. Auto expert and columnist David Booth says the concept has promise for Canada, too.

'Shared space' concept of roads without rules is getting some traction in a number of cities

It might sound like a recipe for chaos: No stop signs, no traffic lights, not even pedestrian crosswalks. But the 'shared space' concept of roads without rules is getting some attention, with cities from the Netherlands to Florida giving it a try. 

David Booth is an auto expert and columnist with, and he says that the shared space concept has promise for Canada.

(The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.)

Let's get a bit of a clearer picture here ... Without traffic lights or the infrastructure that usually tells us what to do on the road, how exactly does this work?

It hinges on social responsibility, or 'motorized morality', if you will.

Instead of, with traffic signals, turning off our brains and saying, 'Well, I'll just follow what the signs tell me to do,' I will actually start thinking for myself and absorbing my surroundings.

So the basic principle is that by removing all the regulations and traffic signals, drivers and pedestrians and cyclists will all pay more attention to their surroundings and the people sharing that space — not just the roadway — and therefore, it will become safer.

Are there speed limits?

Strong recommendations not to go over 30 km/hr ... and the idea then is that the pedestrians, the cyclists and the drivers all make eye contact and signal to each other what they're about to do.

In a way, it actually acts on fear a little bit, if you will. One of the proponents in England -- a designer named Hamilton-Baillie — says 'If people feels unsafe, that's good, because they will then be cautious as they interact with traffic.'

How many times have we — and certainly I saw it yesterday, as I was driving downtown in Toronto — seen a pedestrian literally walk into the crosswalk and not look at all for traffic going around. And of course everyone is supposed to slam down on their brakes. This is saying to the pedestrians, as well as the cyclists and drivers, that 'I actually have to be responsible for myself.'

Canadians have a reputation as polite rule-followers. How well do you think we would adapt to a more free-form model of traffic?

I think it would work fairly well in certain limited usage, say in a small town here in Ontario like Perth, which has a small city centre and people drive slow.

It can't work in a big city centre, I don't think. If you implemented it in downtown Toronto or downtown Calgary and everybody that lives right downtown understands it and they're all behaving by the new standards, what happens when somebody from the suburbs comes in, doesn't know what's going on, doesn't see any traffic signals and says, 'Wow, gosh I can go as fast and do everything I want and why is that person mad at me because he was looking at me and I didn't slow down?'

Even in places where it is being implemented with success, that is their biggest concern.

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.


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