Every now and then you get to spend some time with a person who has some extraordinary ideas by the tail and is turning them into reality.
In January 2006, I was lucky to travel to Holland to meet traffic-calmer Hans Monderman, who gave two of us (a Swedish transportation safety journalist and me) walking and driving tours of several towns that Monderman had helped redesign. I posted ten video clips from that visit to YouTube. I also put some photos from that visit up on Flickr. In fact, for a long time afterward, a picture I took of him with my Sidekick was my wallpaper on that phone.
Monderman’s insight was that cars and engineers had taken over the design of our cities. If we want to reclaim them as citizens, we have to redesign them to be more like villages. That means removing the affordances that separate drivers from pedestrians from bicycle riders (e.g., sharp, steep curbs; stoplights; marked crosswalks), and redesigning the streets and intersections so that all those parties are motivated to make eye contact again.
It works. You get more squealing brakes (now and then), but lower average speeds and much lower accident rates.
His maxim was: “If you treat drivers like idiots, they act as idiots. Never treat anyone in the public realm as an idiot, always assume they have intelligence.”
He knew that his insights weren’t only about roads or car traffic. They were about how experts think they know better, about how top-down thinking has so changed the landscape that we have a hard time being citizens at all, about how very often less is more.
Monderman died of prostate cancer, leaving behind a wife and two boys. He was only 62. His movement lives on in Holland and in other countries. And in many of our imaginations.