This week, I read an article from Vox about towns in Europe that are getting rid of traffic signs. This article was accompanied by a video that detailed what getting rid of traffic signs would look like and how those intersections would function. It also showed footage of the intersections in action. They seemed to be functioning well, which is encouraging, but I think that I’d have to experience it firsthand to really understand how they function. They are also apparently faster than normal intersections. Because there are no traffic lights, people end up spending less time going through the intersection, even with the added slowness.
I am very skeptical of intersections being able to function without traffic signs, but I must address my own biases that create this skepticism. First, I am used to road signs and place a lot of importance on them. Second, I have never encountered a road sign free intersection, so I have no firsthand experience to how they function. Because of both of these things, I went into this article assuming that they wouldn’t work, and found myself favoring the arguments of the dissenters.
The reason that these intersections work, according to the video, is that people drive more cautiously without the road signs. This is because they’re not sure how to handle the situation, so they drive carefully out of fear of the unknown. The other reason that they work is that the people who design the intersections put things like trees that create edge friction, which is the idea that vertical elements nearby to where a person is driving create a visual cue for their speed. Edge friction tricks people into driving slower, making them more aware of their surroundings.
I think my main concern with these intersections is that I don’t trust people in my community to not be complete assholes. There have been plenty of times where people have driven through the crosswalk that I’m trying to walk across, and plenty more times where people have cut me off when we’re both driving. I feel like I would feel unsafe if I didn’t have traffic signs. I’m already on guard any time I’m in a car or walking in front of a car, so I can’t imagine how much more anxiety I would have if I didn’t have rules that told me how to behave in these situations. I think that a lot of drivers that I have encountered think only about themselves, so I could imagine them barreling through intersections without road signs without checking too carefully to see the people around them.
The other concern that the video addressed was that these intersections don’t work very well for people with disabilities, especially people who are visually impaired. These types of intersections require the pedestrian and the driver to work together through visual cues to decide who will go first. A person who is visually impaired cannot tell if traffic is stopping for them with visual cues, and the cues like the noises that crosswalks make aren’t present. This poses a problem where these intersections may be better for the able-bodied population, but they may be more dangerous for differently abled people, leading to more discrimination and disenfranchisement.
I think that these intersections would work better in small communities and at intersections that don’t have a lot of traffic. I can’t imagine how hectic things would be at these intersections during rush hour or in the middle of downtown. This video and article didn’t say anything about where these intersections would function best, nor did it say anything about where they wouldn’t work. I think it was treating all intersections the same, which is not fair. Busy intersections, especially ones that have a lot of pedestrian and driver traffic, pose more risk than lower traffic intersections.
At the end of the video, they talked about intersections that were a mix between the old and new. They had crosswalks so that differently abled people could cross safely, but they didn’t have any other road signs. I think that these are a good compromise. Having a crosswalk where people have to stop that has auditory cues makes it so that differently abled people can use the crosswalk, but it also has the benefits of faster traffic and perhaps even safety benefits long term. For now, though, I think I’m still skeptical, but I’m curious to see where these go in the future.