Tom Vanderbilt of the The Wilson Quarterly profiles the recently-departed traffic engineer, Hans Monderman, of the "less is more" school of traffic control.
Vanderbilt is the author of the Freakonomics-style book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).
In the last few years, however, one traffic engineer did achieve a measure of global celebrity, known, if not exactly by name, then by his ideas. His name was Hans Monderman. The idea that made Monderman, who died of cancer in January at the age of 62, most famous is that traditional traffic safety ÂinfraÂstructure–Âwarning signs, traffic lights, metal railings, curbs, painted lines, speed bumps, and so Âon–Âis not only often unnecessary, but can endanger those it is meant to protect.
As I drove with Monderman through the northern Dutch province of Friesland several years ago, he repeatedly pointed out offending traffic signs. "Do you really think that no one would perceive there is a bridge over there?" he might ask, about a sign warning that a bridge was ahead. "Why explain it?" He would follow with a characteristic maxim: "When you treat people like idiots, they'll behave like idiots." Eventually he drove me to Makkinga, a small village at whose entrance stood a single sign. It welcomed visitors, noted a 30 kilometer-per-hour speed limit, then added: "Free of Traffic Signs." This was Monderman humor at its finest: a traffic sign announcing the absence of traffic Âsigns.