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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Is there a universal lesson here?

I was doing my perusal of Arts and Letters daily and I came upon an article in the Wilson Quarterly. It is funny, I used to be an avid reader of this, saving every issue for more than 20 years until my subscription lapsed. I am not sure why that happened. I must have gotten distracted with something else. 

While the original link from A&L daily was to one article, I got distracted and found another centered around a "radical"  traffic engineer by the name of  Hans Monderman.

And Monderman certainly changed the landscape in the provincial city of Drachten, with the project that, in 2001, made his name. At the town center, in a crowded four- way intersection called the Lawei plein, Monderman removed not only the traffic lights but virtually every other traffic control. Instead of a space cluttered with poles, lights, “traffic islands,” and restrictive arrows, Monderman installed a radical kind of roundabout (a “squareabout,” in his words, because it really seemed more a town square than a traditional roundabout), marked only by a raised circle of grass in the middle, several fountains, and some very discreet indicators of the direction of traffic, which were required by law.

As I watched the intricate social ballet that occurred as cars and bikes slowed to enter the circle (pedestrians were meant to cross at crosswalks placed a bit before the intersection), Monderman performed a favorite trick. He walked, backward and with eyes closed, into the Laweiplein. The traffic made its way around him. No one honked, he wasn’t struck. Instead of a binary, mechanistic process—stop, go—the movement of traffic and pedestrians in the circle felt human and organic.

A year after the change, the results of this “extreme makeover” were striking: Not only had congestion decreased in the intersection— buses spent less time waiting to get through, for ­example— but there were half as many accidents, even though total car traffic was up by a third. Students from a local engineering college who studied the intersection reported that both drivers and, unusually, cyclists were using signals— of the electronic or hand variety— more often. They also found, in surveys, that residents, despite the measurable increase in safety, perceived the place to be more dangerous. This was music to Monderman’s ears. If they had not felt less secure, he said, he “would have changed it immediately.”

I can see all sorts of parallels and ironies. Attempts to domesticate life and create safety are always complicated by creating moral hazards. When you insulate people from dangers, you also run the risk of altering their behavior in such a way that creates new risks. Obviously it makes sense to at least try to identify risky circumstances and at least go after the low hanging fruit. However, an important safety mechanism is our own vigilance which is tightly linked to worry and anxiety, arguably emotions which we would just as well avoid. How do you create safe environments which do not lull us into false senses of security? 

These observations have implications which touch virtually all elements of human life. When the economy is going well and the stock market soaring,  can this only happen when there is sufficient confidence which may very well be compatible with the lack of worry? Creation of financial backstops in the name of safety may foster  behaviors which create greater risks. 

Has the increasing the power of our medical tools created an illusion of safety which fosters behaviors which create more hazards? Do we take physical risks when we are young based upon the assumption that injuries can be repaired. Do we imbibe in dietary indiscretions based upon the assumption that the risks created can be undone using pharmacological interventions or stents? 

In contrast, flying is in an environment which is both safer and associated with greater fear.  Is that a good thing?  How (and should) we create environments which are both safer and associated with the impression of not being safer? Will we put up with this? Is that what we should want?

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