Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Chaos in Oregon

I read an interesting story today originally published on Oregonian reporter Jospeh Rose's commuter blog, "Hard Drive".

The article, entitled "Chaos: A roundabout way to defeat traffic," documented what has been called "a traffic miracle" in Clackamas County.

An intersection previously plagued by traffic queues was transformed recently by introducing a traffic circle at an intersection formerly controlled by a blinking four-way stop.  Rather than calling it a mircale, Rose wrote 

"...traffic engineers lean on a more scientific explanation: Fighting chaos with chaos, a strategy that's increasingly being applied to the region's troubled intersections."
With four churches and a buddhist temple within a half mile of the intersection, parishoners were arriving late to services because of gridlock traffic. 
"'Not anymore,' said Paul Osborn, a pastor at Rolling Hills, which gave $1.5 million to fix the intersection so that its parishioners could get to church on time. 'Something very good has happened.'
The miracle?

Last October, the county removed all the signals. In their place, workers built a $4 million two-lane roundabout where uncertainty now breeds caution and mostly free-flowing traffic.

Suddenly, unsafe is safe.

Thank God. Or thank Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who has long argued that ripping out traditional traffic controls is the way to deal with gridlock.

The theory: Drivers behave more responsibly when faced with uncertainty, becoming more aware of others. The evidence from Holland shows crashes are now far less serious, mostly because open-range roundabouts have taken the place of stop signals and signs."
I've spoken to planners in Memphis who believe in the "less safe is more safe" planning practice, and I've ridden through the stop-sign-less Dutch intersections mentioned in the article above.  The evidence and the anecdotes, alongside my own experience, tend to support this idea that less traffic predictability actually leads to an increase in caution.

While it's arguable that traffic circles are the same thing--or even similar--to four-way intersections with no calming infrastructure, the idea of introducing chaos into traffic patterns raises a bigger question for cyclists.

Among the fundamental tenants of bicycle education in the United States is the mantra, "Ride Predictably".  But is it possible that predictable cycling may actually lead to more dangerous roadways?

In the Netherlands--arguably the most bike friendly place in the western world--I observed that the traffic functioned according to a sort of controlled chaos.  Sure the infrastructure was developed to provide every user with their place in traffic and give them clear indicators for how they should behave. 

Nonetheless, traffic often felt like a pot of water at a rolling boil, perking up and splashing around, but never quite spilling over the edge.  Cyclists and pedestrians appeared to behave according to their own rules, disregarding signals and lanes and directional patterns and curbs.  It worked well--effeciently, actually--largely because cyclists (and pedestrians) broke the rules with an air of caution that was accomodated by motorists.

Perhaps, then, all those these lawless cyclists whon run red lights and ignore stop signs, those riders the "haters" continuously cite in newspaper articles, are actually doing society a favor! 

Probably not.  

Still, China should provide an interesting immersion experience in controlled traffic chaos.  China boasts the world's most interconnected system of bicycle lanes in the world, but they also have cities that are huge and over-populated--cities increasingly filled with cars.  On the other hand, my perception of China as a country moving more towards automobile use was dispelled a bit by this article from the New York Times, which put a price on the growing Chinese rail system.   

Still, a look at bicycle crash rates and safety perceptions in the most bicycle dense place in the world should provide a perfect opportunity to test the chaos theory.    


  1. I don't think that riding predictably is the reason riding is dangerous. You have mentioned many other reasons in the past, which I think are more persuasive: the fact that cars don't think about bikes, don't look for them, don't know what to do when they approach them, etc... The kind of awareness and caution brought on by the controlled chaos is not present in our driving system and therefore promoting riding chaotically I think will only result in more accidents. Until we have the infrastructure to nurture a different driving mindset, one that can foster a controlled chaos, I think riding unpredictably is incredibly unsafe.

    But then again, maybe I am just a "hater." :)

  2. I agree with you, Mia. The Western European inner city roads are designed much differently than are those in the U.S., which creates contextual anamolies that cannot be overlooked.

    But perhaps most importantly, in The Netherlands it is always the motorist who is at fault if a cyclist is hit. This, I think, actually breeds a bit more recklessness on the part of cyclists as they have less accountability for their actions.

    Thanks for your comments!

  3. I like your observations on your journeyings - however, I am a little surprised as to your appreciation of 'roundabouts' as we call them here, and in the UK, as being something revolutionary (!), having been common in both countries for 25 or 30 years. They present special problems for cyclists, especially the double lane variety, due to motorists expectations of cyclist behaviour in them. The best illustration of 'traffic uncertainty' leading to safety that I have seen was in Hanoi, Vietnam, where only 4-wheeled vehicles were seen to observe the (very small)stop signals at intersections, and all the two- and three-wheeled pedal-powered vehicles weaving in and out, obeying their own set of rules. My friend said "When crossing the road, just keep walking, they'll go around you" And they did, until I stopped, seeing someone on a heavily-laden bike approaching me, and then she had to stop dead, losing some luggage. My fault!

    Thanks for coming down to BAC Bikes the other day, and you're right - the logos of Revolution Bicycles and BAC Bikes are very similar. I hope we don't get into copyright infringement territory!


  4. Hey Mark--

    I'll be back to BAC bikes, for sure. It's a swell place.

    As to your comments about traffic circles being revolutionary, I'm not sure that was the point of the previous post. The overarching point is that introducing traffic patterns that require a bit more caution on the part of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians has the potential to create more safety. This concept is not a panacea, and neither are traffic circles. Context sensitive solutions are critical.

    But traffic circles can be designed in ways that keep motor traffic moving while increasing the relative safety of bikes and peds. The previous post on Europe has a picture of a man in a very well designed traffic circle in Amsterdam.

    As for copyright troubles, there is no need to worry anymore. I've already called my lawyers!

    Thanks for your comments, Mark.