Thursday, September 14, 2006

Now lets get rid of the Manhole covers

A comment on this post in Marginal Revolution reminded me of this article I read long ago in the New York Times, on an experiment in Road Design in the Dutch city of Drachten. Oddly enough, its not behind the paywall.

To make communities safer and more appealing, Mr. Monderman argues, you should first remove the traditional paraphernalia of their roads - the traffic lights and speed signs; the signs exhorting drivers to stop, slow down and merge; the center lines separating lanes from one another; even the speed bumps, speed-limit signs, bicycle lanes and pedestrian crossings. In his view, it is only when the road is made more dangerous, when drivers stop looking at signs and start looking at other people, that driving becomes safer.

"All those signs are saying to cars, 'This is your space, and we have organized your behavior so that as long as you behave this way, nothing can happen to you,' " Mr. Monderman said. "That is the wrong story."

The Drachten intersection is an example of the concept of "shared space," a street where cars and pedestrians are equal, and the design tells the driver what to do.

"It's a moving away from regulated, legislated traffic toward space which, by the way it's designed and configured, makes it clear what sort of behavior is anticipated," said Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a British specialist in urban design and movement and a proponent of many of the same concepts.

Sounds a lot like India to me, and thats the problem. I suspect the good people of the Netherlands ahve so internalized the rules of the road that they hardly need reminders. In the absence of these shared values, the result is not "emergent" order, but mere chaos. Introduce a few dozen Indian bus drivers, and the burghers will scream for the traffic cops. John Keay makes a similar point about Financial Regulations in an old article of his.

The globalisation of financial markets has been a major force behind the move to more explicit, more formal, regulation. Self-regulation, for long the key to effective supervision of financial services, requires that the participants share common values and assumptions. Common service in the Swiss National Army underpins the tacit values of the Swiss business community as common hardship in a public school underpinned the tacit values of the English financial community. But on the latter, at least, you can no longer rely. Nick Leeson went to a comprehensive. And a foreigner might not even notice the rising of the eyebrows of the Governor of the Bank of England, far less interpret its significance.

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