A case for removing all traffic signs and lights

In order to have cars and trucks share the same space with more vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists, we have created a whole system of rules and regulations designed to smooth the flow and prevent accidents. But is that the only way to go? Some argue that when there are rules, people do not really pay attention to their surroundings, thinking that just following the rules is enough.

Some cities in Europe are trying something different. By removing all traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, and other signs and essentially creating common areas that are rule-free and where cars, pedestrians and cyclists all have equal rights, they find that all users of the road are more considerate and careful because they cannot depend on the signs and lights to make their decisions for them. In addition, it seemed to make drivers drive more carefully and slow down and eliminated traffic jams.

Here is a video of one such attempt in Germany.

It seems a little too good to be true. But would such a system work in the US? It seems like it would need a populace that had a heightened civic consciousness. Would trying it in the US, with its highly individualized, more competitive ethos, and litigious mentality, lead to worse outcomes?


  1. OverlappingMagisteria says

    I also wonder how long it would last. I’m sure at first, most people will be extra careful because the security of the rules is gone. But once you get familiar with it, I’d bet the carelessness will start creeping back in.

  2. deepak shetty says

    You do have this -- in India. The rules may be there and no one follows them. It hasn’t brought about the end of traffic jams as far as I know.

  3. anat says

    deepak, is there any documented evidence regarding prevalence of accidents and road fatalities?

  4. moarscienceplz says

    Traffic signals weren’t invented just so we’d have festive colored lights to look at.
    Cities used the “everybody just behave and watch out for the other guy” method for many years. It got so bad that before electric lights were available, they had to put police officers in the middle of the intersections to control the traffic. If people back then felt that all that trouble and expense was worth it, I have to conclude that the free-for-all method did not work very well.

  5. Holms says

    I don’t think this will scale well with large populations. At some point, pedestrians for example will simply lose the ability to ever get across roads without designated crossings; relying on a driver to slow and wave you through only really works with relatively slow single-lane roads.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Tony!… @ # 5: … I think this plan will not work in the United States.

    You forget another crucial aspect of Amerikan freedom® -- the driver with the biggest gun has the right of way.

  7. EigenSprocketUK says

    Yes, “shared surface” schemes do sound like a neat idea, but there’s ample evidence that they are, as you say, too good to be true. Some of the experiments in the UK have been outwardly successful, some were found to be confusing (though one imagines that people slowly get used to the new rules), and some of them ended up with fatalities and serious injuries for pedestrians who struggle to navigate a much-enlarged crossing with no obvious pathway. So there are lots of opinions and counter-opinions around.
    One bit of evidence-based research shows one significant group becoming much worse off: people with visual impairments.
    These schemes all rely on making eye contact and asserting / negotiating your presence /priority on the road. When that doesn’t happen, the outcomes are worse. This seems to outweigh the far less significant changes to the other road users. I had thought these schemes must be a good idea; now I’m pretty convinced that they will be a bad idea in most situations where they are applied. If you hear anyone discussing these as a solution for “traffic flow” issues, you know that they are approaching it from entirely the wrong viewpoint. It’s a people issue, not a vehicle issue.
    Loads of briefing, research, and support material at Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. (Assistance dogs in UK-speak)

  8. lanir says

    Even roundabouts don’t work that well when things scale up. I was using a multi-lane roundabout 4 times a week. Someone on the inside lane basically drove me off the roundabout because they just assumed I was driving in a particular traffic flow pattern (this one had 5 outlets, 2 of which get the vast majority of the traffic). I can’t imagine this scaling beyond small towns. Although for those small towns it seems like yet another cute way to highlight a particular shopping area you hope lots of people park and navigate on foot.

  9. smrnda says


    Thanks for mentioning the consequences for the visually impaired. I’m legally blind. I could potentially cross a street without a signal if it was the type of street which was frequently empty, but most streets I need to rely on the signals. I also don’t want to be walking on a street without a designates space for vehicles or bicycles.

    A difference between the US and other nations is that roads tend to be *for vehicles* with many motorists regarding pedestrians and cyclists as a nuisance intruding on their tuft. Some large cities and even some small towns are more pedestrian friendly, but these are all places with traffic signals. In those areas, an issue is that without halting pedestrians for a time, vehicles will be unable to proceed since there’s such a high volume of pedestrians.

    Things like this might work on streets which have heavy pedestrian usage and lower levels of vehicle usage already, but where the level of pedestrians is low enough that vehicles will never be stuck in a sea of people traveling by foot, unable to move.

  10. Mano Singham says

    I am sure there must be visually impaired people in those cities and I am surprised that that they did not take the research that EigenSprocketUK links to into account when implementing this plan. I can see that being a deal breaker.

    Shared Spaces may work better once we have self-driving cars that are able to deal with all pedestrians. Maybe there will come a time when sections of cities will only allow self-driving cars.

  11. fwtbc says

    I’m also legally blind and this sounds like just another example of society forgetting people like me exist.

    Things like this would make me feel even less independent and not want to go anywhere that involved crossing a road that’s even remotely busy.

    Oh well, after a few attempts at crossing a road, they mightn’t need to worry about me anymore. Keen strategy.

  12. says

    Unless you live in a country where people generally obey the law and see pedestrians as human beings, it’s a fantasy. It might work in the Netherlands, Germany or Japan where people are concerned about those around them whom they don’t know, but in most places drivers view pedestrians and cyclists as targets or impediments to going fast, and governments view cars as more important than people.

    Several European cities have the adopted better option of banning cars altogether from city centres. At the very least, there should be fewer driving lanes, limits on vehicular traffic and pedestrians and cyclists given protected paths (e.g. with concrete blocks). It may be a myth that the Netherlands says “the driver is always at fault”, but they certainly take a better attitude than English speaking countries (e.g. Canada, US, England) which almost always blame the cyclist or pedestrian.


    People who walk on sidewalks are blamed when cars jump the curb and kill them. As of December 2014 (I can find no later articles) the driver who murdered eight year old Rylee Ramos has still not been charged with any crime, and likely won’t be. If the driver had hit another car and hurt or killed the occupants, you can be sure the cops and prosecutors would have taken action by now. But kill a kid who was standing legally on a sidewalk? New York city says, “Who cares?”


  13. A. Noyd says

    left0ver1under (#15)

    It might work in the Netherlands, Germany or Japan where people are concerned about those around them whom they don’t know […]

    In the case of Japan, that concern seems to evaporate whenever someone has a cigarette in hand or gets behind the wheel.

    The other day I saw a guy coming out of a parking lot 15 feet from where a side road crossed a major street. He was aiming to go down the side road across the intersection. The light for the side road was red, but apparently the guy thought since he was coming from the parking lot he could drive across the major road against the light. He nearly caused two accidents.

    And I’ve learned to go behind any car trying to turn left onto a major street because the driver, as a rule, will not look left for foot/bicycle traffic before turning.

  14. EigenSprocketUK says

    @mano #13 -- there’s no telling how street planners and politicians can get themselves carried away with the idea of expensive street upgrades which can be a magnet for extra funding and prestige design and which can sweep away lots of long-standing maintenance issues and historic ugliness.

    @left0ver1under #15: it’s a bit hyperbolic of streetsblog.org to say that it’s “legal to run over a child on a sidewalk”. It’s clearly not legal.
    In that case there were no charges filed (or at least, not yet). We don’t know why not, though I can we must presume some sort of medical problem caused the driver to be thoroughly out of control. I don’t know if that precludes a private prosecution, or maybe civil action, for the horrific accident.
    In the UK recently there was one such accident in Glasgow where a heavy vehicle (a bin lorry) ploughed into a crowd of christmas shoppers, killing six people. Initially it had all the hallmarks of the most tragic of accidents, but it turned out later that the driver had concealed his medical history which would have precluded his driving the vehicle in the first place. The families of some victims are seeking a private prosecution which is relatively unusual.

  15. Knight in Sour Armor says

    We’ve got enough cyclists riding on sidewalks (and going the wrong way in bike lanes) and pedestrians jaywalking 20 ft from a crosswalk in my town to know that this would be thoroughly unworkable.

    As a pedestrian I’m honestly a lot more worried about bikes running me over on the sidewalk than I am about cars.

  16. lorn says

    Signs can be reminders and help clarify what to do, and where. You start to run into issues when you try to have a sign for everything. You end up with congested urban areas where there are simply too many signs to read and heed.

    I suspect that what is needed are a set of interlocking and nearly comprehensive but non-specific general rules. One that is currently enforced is that if you run into someone stopped you are at fault and it doesn’t matter why, or how fast, vehicle stops. No need to have any signage telling people not to back-end other vehicles.

    A similar rule might be: Lesser forms of transportation always have right-of-way. Interpreted as a simple to understand rule that bicycles always, with no significant exceptions, have the right-of-way over any motorized vehicle. Also, people walking have right-of-way over bicycles.

    In the US we seem to use the specificity of the law to avoid ambiguity, doubt, people getting away with stuff, and liability. Unfortunately when you specify everything the number and depth of the information necessary to lay that out means you get a huge number of signs, some with large blocks of text. They are not helpful and could, because they are , in and of themselves, distractions, could be considered hazards.



    Sometimes I think that a lot of this is a mistaken attempt to correct social problems and mental issues with signage. I once watched a man drive into the back of a school bus. There was no other traffic, the day was clear, and the bus was stopped at a light. The guy slowed down, and then drove into the back of the bus at about 3 mph. We are talking about driving into a huge vehicle, painted yellow, with a large and wide bumper, at around eye level, painted in a bold and bright yellow and black diagonal pattern, with large and bright red brake lights illuminated above it.

    The lesson there is that bigger and brighter signs cannot fix diligently and dedicated oblivious or stupid.

  17. mr.ed says

    Mano and I live where the traffic signal was invented. Perhaps because of this, we’re stricken with leagues of restrictions, signals and signs placed without proper traffic counts by city council action.
    The answer: “Well, we had to do SOMETHING. The neighbors were complaining.” A city on the other side of town had to take down 69 stop signs placed this way.
    I doubt his city or mine, which abuts his to the north, will ever give an inch.
    They are, however, too lazy to trim trees that hide stop and other signs. That would be real work.

  18. Excluded Layman says

    EigenSprocketUK, you’re projecting your presumption of legal sanity. In the (relatively wealthy) Gulf-side Florida town my grandparents wintered in, there was an incident where a woman drifted out of her lane and killed a cyclist.

    “There was not enough evidence there under Florida law to be able to charge Theresa Shirley with vehicle manslaughter,” said Samantha Syoen, spokeswoman for the state attorney’s office.
    Instead, the Florida Highway Patrol will cite Shirley for failure to remain in a single lane.
    A screening of Shirley’s blood showed no alcohol, but found several prescription drugs, according to a memo sent by [Assistant State Attorney Anthony W.] Kunasek. Shirley tested positive for drugs, including a muscle relaxant and a pain reliever. The drugs were prescribed to Shirley, and the levels in her blood fell within the usual therapeutic range, according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab test.


    [In] order for the state to prove vehicular homicide, officials have to prove that Shirley was driving her car in a reckless manner that is likely to cause harm or death.
    Falling asleep at the wheel is not enough to establish vehicular homicide.

    Being “within the therapeutic range” of prescription drugs is not legally intoxicated in Florida, even while driving. Granted, it is Florida, where jurisprudence and old people go to die; my point is that you cannot use your sense of normalcy to infer the laws of other places.

    PS: Has nobody seen Hot Fuzz? The word is “collision”! “Accident” has the side effect of minimizing blame.

    Think about the ways you hear it used:
    “Mommy, I had an accident!”
    “Oh dear! Don’t worry sweetie, it’s okay. If you wanted to drive on the sidewalk, she should have gotten out of your way!”

  19. Holms says

    A similar rule might be: Lesser forms of transportation always have right-of-way. Interpreted as a simple to understand rule that bicycles always, with no significant exceptions, have the right-of-way over any motorized vehicle. Also, people walking have right-of-way over bicycles.

    Why would that rule be a good idea? It would pretty much ruin the flow of all traffic in places busier than a small town.

  20. Onamission5 says

    I live in a place where drivers frequently don’t even cede ROW to other motor vehicles. Example, there’s a one lane bridge on a two lane road I drive almost daily. Decorum, and state law, requires that each driver coming from a different direction take turns crossing the bridge, and that all drivers cede ROW to bikes and pedestrians. Sometimes that occurs. What occurs other times, is that one driver will stop for an oncoming car, and a line of cars going in the opposite direction will take advantage by speeding through, leaving the driver who stopped with an impasse. On occasion, there will be cars behind the stopped driver who get impatient and go around, attempting to bully their way across a one lane bridge that is already occupied by vehicles. Any pedestrian unlucky enough to get caught in the fray has their life at risk, because there are no sidewalks on that road.

    This is inside city limits, directly outside the main city. It’s also not the only road like this. IME, when there are clearly posted directions, you’ll still find those who do not abide, but when there’s no posted signage, or there’s a power outage and the signals are not working, rare are those who cede ROW. In event of outages, police have to get involved, or the intersections get packed with cars whose driver have conveniently forgotten the rules governing 4-way stops.

    Ditto lines in the road. If there’s no lines, like in an intersection, some people just drive down the middle of the street. Enough to make certain areas incredibly unsafe.

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