03 August 2006

'Naked streets' and safe chaos

I recommend taking a look at YouTube's GlobalSouth group which has more than 60 short videos now on transport in developing countries.

A striking number of the videos are simply footage of streets or intersections in countries like India, China or Vietnam. Most of them show traffic that at first glance looks completely and utterly CRAZY, often with a mind-boggling diversity of road users doing anything and everything you could imagine.

And the amazing thing is that it seems to work. For some good examples look here or here.

One traffic clip (this one of an Indian intersection) provoked hot discussion at sustran-discuss in April. Some saw it as horrifying, while others suggested it was actually working very well. No consensus emerged I am afraid (see here and several responses). By the way, the Indian video looks to me like it may have been deliberately sped up a little to improve the slapstick effect!

Here is one of the approving sustran-discuss comments:
As it happens, I shot a similar video last summer in Urumqi, except there's also a pedestrian crossing going through it which is freely used by the cars doing u-turns. I started to video it to show people how bad the traffic and driving was. After 10 minutes of filming I realised that it all worked rather well, and felt suitably humbled about my prejudices.
Let me assume for today that the chaotic looking situations in these videos are actually rather safe, with few serious accidents (although probably quite a few minor ones). This is a big assumption (and I don't have the evidence to make it) but it does not seem unreasonable.

The roads in these videos all seem somewhat 'naked' - along the lines of the 'shared space' approach to road and intersection design. Maybe they are inadvertently naked and not by careful design as shared space advocates might want. But these streets or intersections are working (maybe even working well!?) without all the traffic engineering paraphernalia or signs and traffic lights, etc. Or maybe the signs and lights are just being ignored.

Does this threaten to turn our quest for order and traffic discipline on its head? Maybe streets with vulnerable road users actually NEED a certain amount of chaos to work safely!? Maybe they need to have all those crazy turning movements, mixed vehicles, pedestrians meandering and bicycles sailing through in order to keep everyone awake and alert to the unpredictable? Maybe, as David Engwicht puts it, safe streets need more intrigue and uncertainty not more predictability.

Someone else wasn't so sure, however:
It is a trade-off of efficiency and safety! Similar driving behaviors
and situation in most of Chinese cities, resulting an "official record"
of 100,000 more fatalities and 520,000 more injuries annually!!
Indeed, some of the videos DO show examples of chaotic Chinese urban traffic going HORRIBLY wrong (WARNING: not for the squeamish - some of these crashes are a tad upsetting).

This made me wonder. A casual look suggests that the key difference might be speed. The accident scenes in the video from China almost all show situations in which the traffic is light and the speeds high, even though in most cases nothing much else is different about these crash intersections compared with other 'chaotic' intersections. This is more a question than a conclusion, of course, based on this little video-based 'investigation'!

But running with this idea for a minute anyway, maybe the horrendous traffic accident statistics that we read about low-income countries (high rates of accident per vehicle, not per capita) are not happening at the really 'crazy' times at all and are not a result of the obvious disregard for rules - at least not when it is at its most obvious?

Maybe these same chaotic places only become dangerous when the traffic is lighter, when there is not enough chaos, and the motor vehicles tend to pick up speed? A hypothesis that would be worth testing more carefully I think.

A bunch of other questions arise. I wonder if there are any simple design features for such places that could prevent speeds, and hence danger, from increasing at times when traffic is light?

The naked streets toolbox apparently can work such magic ... with designs that make it feel like a pedestrian or playing child or bicycle might leap out in front of you at any moment, even if there are none around. Could we find low cost ways to do this that would suit Indian or Vietnamese cities? Or maybe I don't know enough about shared spaces as done in Europe. Could it be that Dutch naked streets also get dangerous when there are too few people using them?I must find out.

On the traffic efficiency side there are other questions, which I will save for another day.


Sunny said...

Nice hypothesis I should say. Coming from India and experiencing the "Chaotic" streets and seeing the strict followers of traffic rules in Bangkok I still wonder why the accidents in Bangkok are more than Cities in India. Yes, I agree with u paul that Speed is the culprit and wherever there is an increase in speed there would be an increase in accidents.

On the other hand I would call the system in the indian cities to be the "Desi-shared space" concept. But still we could streamine the exisitng to look more beautiful.

I am waiting what the others would say on ont he question about whether accidents would increase in the Dutch if the streets were speed friendly.

Paul Barter said...

As a follow up. I just noticed a nice page within the Hamilton Baillie Assocites website (they are shared space consultants). The page has numerous wonderful pictures of real shared space designs. Mostly in Europe, and one in Japan. See http://www.hamilton-baillie.co.uk/gallery.htm

I would love to see some videos of these in action, with lots of mixed traffic like we see in India or Vietnam!

chetan said...

In India we have a system of providing speed breakers in form of inentionally created bumps on the specific locations. Where you expect a sudden rush of traffic at certain time like infront of a school or a government hospital. A driver automatically controls the vehicle speed even in the non rush hour avoiding possibility of an accident.

Anonymous said...

Almost 10% of the global road traffic accidents occur in India. Much of the world wide web is full of sarcasm & mocking of the indisciplined driving on Indian roads. Unfortunately in since 60 years since independence the authorities have failed to publish a National Highway code. Licences are given to anyone who can demonstrate an ability to use the clutch-accelerator, consequently the motoer driving schools teach just that and no more. Concepts such as - blindspots, principle of MSM, the tyre & tarmac rule, 2 second gap and most improtantly giving way are not known to the average Indian driver.

This site http://driving-india.blogspot.com/ has been created with the purpose of providing driver education and training to all Indian road users. It is by far the most comprehensive website providing training in defensive driving. Learning simple road habits can make our roads safe and also free up congestion caused by traffic chaos.

At present 17 driver education videos aimed at changing the driving culture on Indian roads are available. The video are unique in that the footage is real life action from streets of London. We have copied the Western habits: Replaced the dhoti with denim, high rise buildings for Indian cottages, burgers and coke instead of Indian breads and perhaps sugarcane juice. Surely we can copy the Western ways of travelling too.

To watch the videos, interested readers may visit: http://driving-india.blogspot.com/

The videos cover the following topics:

Video 1: Covers the concept of Blind spots
Video 2: Introduces the principle of Mirrors, Signal and Manoeuvre
Video 3: At red lights, stop behind the stop line
Video 4: At red lights there are no free left turns
Video 5: The Zebra belongs to pedestrians
Video 6: Tyres and Tarmac (rather than bumper to bumper)
Video 7: Merging with the Main road
Video 8: Leaving The Main Road
Video 9: Never Cut Corners
Video 10: Show Courtesy on roads
Video 11: 5 Rules that help deal with Roundabouts
Video 12: Speed limits, stopping distances, tailgating & 2 seconds rule
Video 13: Lane discipline and overtaking
Video 14: Low beam or high beam?
Video 15: Parallel (reverse parking) made easy
Video 16: Give the cyclist the respect of a car
Video 17: Dealing with in-car condensation