There has been a lot of discussion lately about “Complete Streets” – streets that accommodate all forms of vehicular and pedestrian transportation. And that creates the problem: putting apparently incompatible forms of transportation in the same space. The solution often seems to be to subdivide the “shared” street into segments using signage or markings or signals that serve various uses. There goes the basic concept of “shared” use.
Two different approaches to solving potential conflicts are:
A. Provide visual cues and minimize regulatory signage: Deleting or minimizing signs and symbols in favor of subliminal or visual clues appears to engage people more quickly, partly because they are not sure what they are seeing, and partly because the primitive part of the brain that reads the visual cues is faster that the rational part of the brain. The colors and shapes of stop signs and yield signs are probably more effective than the lettering. Commercial examples of symbols that are totally effective without lettering (branding) include the Shell Oil sign and now the Starbucks symbol.
B. Plaster everything with regulatory signage: Most of the designs for these streets are full of signs of all descriptions, painted lanes, stripes, arrows, stop bars, flashing lights, and more. Reading and following these signs requires a reaction from our frontal lobes, the rational part of the brain.
A good example of traffic regulatory markings and signage gone awry is on the roundabouts at the US-23 expressway Lee Road exit between Ann Arbor and Brighton. Each roundabout has a forest of signs and a carpet of stripes, arrows and what all, and lots of drivers trying to figure out what the signs all mean while avoiding other vehicles whose drivers are doing the same. To make matters worse, the signage and markings on each roundabout is different. The roundabout on the west side of the expressway is under Livingston County Road Commission jurisdiction and the one on the east is under Oakland County Road Commission jurisdiction.
In a backwards sort of way, the amount of signage and markings on the Lee Road roundabouts may effectively be about the same as having no signs at all. The visual cloud of directions can be so overwhelming that drivers ignore everything, shut off their rational brains, and simply go slowly and negotiate positions and directions with the other drivers while using the survival mode in their primitive brains.
An article in the March 2011 American Planning Association Planning magazine by Raymond Heinrich and titled “Traffic Accidents Don’t Just Happen…They’re Caused” provides an interesting take on traffic safety and regulations: “When it comes to safety, the message is plain: We are relying on signs, road paint, and the wrong side of our brain for traffic management instead of pattern recognition for vehicle guidance. We should be learning from neurologists and cognitive psychologists who say that subconscious cues can automatically take road safety up a notch.”
Earl Ophoff, RLA is a registered landscape architect and can be reached at Midwestern Consulting in Ann Arbor, Michigan (734.995.0200).