It’s often said contemptuously of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, that he has a degree in traffic management. In fact, his degree is in civil engineering and traffic management, but as the latter is almost always subsumed to the former, it’s impossible for us to know to what extent his expertise lies in designing and constructing roundabouts, and how much in assessing their capability for regulating traffic flows. Anyway, what’s wrong with traffic management?
It may well be that in his native village of Aradan in Semnan province, Ahmadinejad was exposed from an early age to traditional patterns of vehicular movement that rendered him sceptical of the sort of western models shoved down his throat when he reached the Iran University of Science and Technology in Tehran. I like to picture the future president inveighing against the systems of chicanes, speed bumps and traffic lights imposed to regulate Tehran’s turbulent traffic flows, and instead proposing a return to the principles enshrined in the layout of Aradan: no perceptible division between sidewalks and the roadbed, no signs, and the speed of all traffic only determined by drivers’ – whether of bullock carts or cars – consciousness of pedestrians.
If this hypothetical situation did occur, then Ahmadinejad would’ve been in sympathy with the work of the pioneering Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who inverted decades of baseless theory by doing away with signage and reintegrating the troubled world view of the average car driver with the saner one of the pedestrian. Monderman’s innovation was that it’s the very devices designed to protect pedestrians – standardised signs and markings – that have ended up imposing traffic on the social context. He realised that in a realm governed by statutory directives – Stop here! Wait! Go! – drivers will respond by obeying these signs and signals, while neglecting the wider world through which they barrel.
Anyone with the least experience of walking through city streets knows the truth of this: so preoccupied are car drivers by these cues that they are oblivious to what goes on around them. I often sneak up on cars when they’re stuck in jams and, employing skills long-honed in the pits of Formula 1 racetracks, remove all their wheels without the drivers noticing. How I laugh when the driver is left impotently revving! But more seriously the madness of this approach leads directly to the stop-go frustrations of drivers who are alienated from everyone around them. “Road rage” isn’t simply a condition afflicting these poor souls – it’s a chancre eating its way through the built environment and all who inhabit it.
About 40 years too late, one small portion of central London has adopted Monderman’s approach – Exhibition Road in the heart of the museum district of South Kensington. A year or so ago, I noticed that a new roadbed was being laid here that had no curbs, and that instead of the usual black macadam there was a snazzy terrazzo of granite setts devoid of any white lines. Unfortunately, the traffic managers of the Royal Borough have neglected some of the most important aspects of Monderman’s thesis – there are signs at the beginning of the road posting a speed limit of 20mph, and furthermore the zone of shared road space is bisected by the sign-heavy Brompton Road.
No wonder drivers and pedestrians are confused – and last month a pedestrian was knocked down and seriously injured by a slow-moving truck. Needless to say, local residents were quick to blame the Mondermanisation of Exhibition Road for this accident and call for further signage to promulgate a 5mph speed limit – but the truth is that it hasn’t been extensive enough: a proper “street for living” needs to be coextensive with either a sizeable district of a city, an entire town centre, or a whole village, so that drivers entering the area need to have psychologically reinforced the idea that they are no longer on the open road.
“He blew his mind out in a car / He didn’t notice that the lights had changed . . .” I like to think of this as a couplet that the young Mahmoud might have grooved to, wearing his trademark windbreaker. That his political drive seems to have been full-speed-ahead to crazy intolerance shouldn’t bituminise Monderman with the same brush.