This morning I looked out from the 34th floor of the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City and saw something I thought I’d never see again since seeing it in Laos: a complex-looking intersection with rush hour traffic and no traffic lights! Cars were moving smoothly. Peacefully, even.
A few years ago my husband and I visited Luang Prabang, Laos, a town with few passenger vehicles. Most people ride two-wheelers and the few cars and SUVs seem to be for the tourist industry and business operators. One day to escape the heat we drank cold tea on the shady terrace of a bookstore high up on a hill, and got mesmerized watching traffic below. We could see many roads from up there. We watched streams of two-wheelers moving gracefully like a dance. Negotiating through the traffic but without negotiation. If that makes sense. It looked like they just knew what to do. They were all working together. Plus, many were young people because the school day had just ended. We could tell by the uniforms. Schoolchildren, teens, young adults — they were riding their two-wheelers through a system that looked so orderly without traffic signals and signs.
I thought something like that would never work in the U.S. Beyond the fact that we’re way beyond two-wheelers as transportation, we are competitive. Me first. This is my lane. Don’t cut in front of me. Hurry up, get out of my way. I was here first. Stop riding my a**. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
Ever think these things? Yell these things? And worse?! Thought so.
Around the time we were in Laos, we were fighting our village to install a stop sign in our neighborhood so cars wouldn’t keep barreling down a hill along our narrow residential street where children wait in the street for the bus and there are no sidewalks and no streetlights. We don’t want sidewalks and streetlights, we just wanted a stop sign to change driver behavior. Of course the village traffic engineer told us you don’t use stop signs to slow traffic speeds, that’s not the purpose of them. We knew and we didn’t care. We saw scary driver behavior when children are in the road, and we demanded action. The village traffic study found an unacceptable percentage of drivers were driving 40-45 mph in our 20 mph road (told ya so) and we got the stop sign. Traffic slowed down significantly. My view of the world was proven.
But this morning I saw vehicles moving through a complicated-looking system without signals. Sorry the video is from a phone and the view is so tiny here, really can’t see it now.
Streams of vehicles didn’t need to come to a grating halt like red lights make us do. Where possible, traffic flowed to the right or straight ahead without stopping. When turning left, signage allowed traffic that has the right of way to move first. When no vehicles with right-of-way are present, vehicles can keep moving and pass through. Drivers are making these decisions themselves, guided by signage and likely by the layout of the intersection that makes them pay attention, rather than being told what to do by traffic signals.
This is when I realized I was looking at something I thought I didn’t believe in. Many of us have professional beliefs and perspectives that we get through our education and experience. Working in traffic safety, over the past few years I’ve heard Tom Vanderbilt speak at traffic safety conferences several times. He wrote Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). The book and his presentations show how more challenging traffic environments may make drivers pay more attention to the roadway and their driving, resulting in fewer crashes. He shows traffic situations that exist in other countries that many in the U.S. would think are dangerous. But he says research shows these “dangerous” situations actually reduce crashes.
So many things he talks about are counter-intuitive to what I believed, I had difficulty accepting them. No matter how interested I was in his speeches, I never quite bought in. Except for roundabouts, I do accept those, having driven through endless roundabouts in Italy while negotiating places we’d never been before and signs (sometimes a dozen of them on a single pole!) in a language we don’t speak, at speeds that wouldn’t tick off fast Italian drivers, and despite all that always passing through the roundabouts safely and with confidence.
But this morning as I watched the traffic at this Kansas City intersection, I understood what he’s talking about. It’s good to be more open to other perspectives.