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A sign of the times?


Europe | It sounds crazy, but the German town of Bohmte is getting rid of all its road signs and traffic lights. By Tony Paterson

There is only one sign that warns you that all other traffic signs are being abolished in the small west German town of Bohmte: it is a huge black exclamation mark on a red and white background with the somewhat baffling "Priority Changed" written in bold letters underneath.

Otherwise the street is a broad vista of smooth pink cobblestones edged with strips of nobbly white rubber to accommodate the blind. There are no traffic lights, no stop signs, no waiting restrictions and no proper kerbstones. Soon the road user is confronted with an alarming reality - nobody has priority.

A town without traffic signals initially conjures up images of central Cairo or Naples in the middle of the rush hour with snarling, clench-fisted drivers revving their engines and fighting for each inch of space, leaving pedestrians diving for cover.

But in Bohmte, cars that pass along this stretch of sign-free road seem to be driven by swivel-headed paranoiacs with rubber vertebrae. They crawl along at little more than 15mph, their occupants constantly craning their necks to make doubly sure that they are not going to hit anything, be it a pedestrian, cyclist or even another car.

Yesterday was day three of the start of Bohmte's bold experiment. The town of 7,500 inhabitants north-east of Osnabrück has decided to abolish all traffic signs and signals in an attempt to cut traffic congestion and accidents. In rule-obsessed Germany, where there are 1,800 combinations for the country's total of 650 traffic signs - the project is an attempt to wean drivers off the idea of permanent external control and put responsibility for road safety firmly back in the hands of the road user.

Klaus Goedejohann, Bohmte's mayor, and one of the chief initiators of the project, told The Independent yesterday that the idea was designed principally to cut the flow of lorry traffic through his town. "Every day, an average of 13,500 vehicles pass through Bohmte and most of them are lorries, but from now on drivers and pedestrians will enjoy equal rights," he insisted.

The €2.3m (£1.6m) scheme is being funded by the European Union and is based on the so-called "shared space" traffic management concept dreamt up by the Dutch expert Hans Monderman. His system is designed to ensure that road users "negotiate" with each other through eye contact or hand signals rather than having it enforced by traffic signals and signs.

Mr Monderman's scheme is already used in the Dutch town of Drachten where accidents and traffic congestion have dropped dramatically since it was introduced. Studies show that the scheme keeps traffic movement fluid. Cars pass through the town twice as fast as before and use less fuel while doing so.

Bohmte launched the first stage of "shared space" this week by removing all traffic signs from one of the town's major roads, re-paving it and flanking it with oak tree saplings. The centre of the town is being ripped up for further modification which will turn its entire main thoroughfare into an area interspersed by large roundabouts, on which nobody had priority on the streets.

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Mr Goedejohann said the scheme was a true expression of "people power". More than three years ago Bohmte's residents were asked to come up with suggestions aimed at cutting congestion on the town's main thoroughfare that served as an east-west lorry route.

"The residents were against the obvious suggestion which would have been a bypass, because experience showed that they take away customers from the shops," the mayor said. "They wanted to keep traffic passing through the town centre but slower and at a reduced volume," he said.

As Hans Monderman's concept seemed worth investigating, the town made contact with his office in Holland. Within weeks Mr Monderman was himself in Bohmte, explaining the advantages of his scheme to a crowded town hall. A busload of initially-sceptical Bohmte townsfolk travelled to Drachten to see the concept in action. "They were pooh-poohing the idea on the way there, on the way back they were converted," the mayor said yesterday.

Yet not all the experts were convinced. Siegfried Brockmann, a traffic accident specialist for Germany's Association of Insurers said that the project only worked when there is a consensus of opinion among those involved. "More than 13,000 vehicles pass through Bohmte daily, most of them are from outside. There can hardly be any consensus in this case," he said.

However, Mr Goedejohann maintained that up to 20,000 were passing through Drachten each day before "shared space" was introduced into the Dutch town. "With our version of shared space, we hope that Bohmte will gain a reputation among lorry drivers as a town to be avoided."

Most experts agreed that more traffic signals was the wrong answer. "They simply encourage drivers to speed up in order to get past them," said Professor Klaus Becker, a specialist at Dresden's Technical University.

Others such as Professor Bernhard Schlag, one of Germany's handful of traffic psychologists, argued that "shared space" creates the ideal conditions for a greatly-improved environment for inner city residents. "If the goal is an inner city which is pleasant to live in, we have to make streets narrower, install roundabouts and even build bends in the road," he said.

Professor Schlag bases his argument on his experiences in town centres with narrow streets that were built in the Middle Ages. "You can pass through these city centres by car but it's not easy," he said.

Rainer Kling, Bohmte's police spokesman, said the scheme already appeared to have cut congestion in the town and encouraged a more courteous attitude among road users.

Two farmers who stood admiring the new "shared space" highway were nevertheless sceptical about the scheme's wider use. "I don't think it would work in a really big city though," insisted one. "Can you imagine this working in the middle of Paris?" he asked.

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