Says Baker, “In Suzhou, the traffic rules are simple. “There are no rules,” as one local told me. A city of 2.2million people, Suzhou has 500,000 cars and 900,000 bicycles, not to mention hundreds of pedicabs, mopeds and assorted, quainter forms of transportation. Drivers of all modes pay little attention to the few traffic signals and weave wildly from one side of the street to another. Defying survival instincts, pedestrians have to barge between oncoming cars to cross the roads.”
“But here’s the catch: during the 10 days I spent in Suzhou last fall, I didn’t see a single accident. Really, not a single one. Nor was there any of the road rage one might expect given the anarchy that passes for traffic policy. And despite the obvious advantages that accrue to cars because of their size, no single transportation mode dominates the streets. On the contrary, the urban arterials are a communal mix of automobiles, cyclists, pedestrians, and small businesses such as inner-tube repairmen that set up shop directly in the right-of-way.
“For their part, many American traffic engineers say one critical ingredient is missing for a system built around shared spaces to work in the United States: a communal sensibility. But this, of course, is precisely the point; redesign the street environment as an active community space, and you equalize the power relationship between cars and human beings.
The real gain in urban quality does not come from clawing back areas of the city from cars, as important as that is,” said Hamilton-Baillie, who gave a talk at the Portland, Oregon, Department of Transportation. “But the next step is how you apply a broader approach to those areas where you need cars and trucks, bicycles and shops, and pedestrians and children’s play, all those different functions to take place in precious urban space.”
“It’s not quite the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the shared-space approach overturns the landmarks of sedentary isolation — everything from gated communities to skyrocketing childhood obesity rates — to celebrate the complexity and contradictions of city life.
The absence of traffic controls means that people are out for themselves; the trick is, they have to look out for everyone else as well. Second-generation traffic design is a curious mix of selfishness and altruism, of order amid chaos. And, after a fashion, it just might work.