Speaking of cool trends, here’s one that’s even cooler but, sadly, less likely to make it to our shores. Cities in Denmark, Scandinavia, and possibly in the near future, Britain [* see update] are dealing with traffic through what might be called creative chaos: They’re removing signs, lights, and guardrails to create open public spaces, where cars and pedestrians mix freely, ungoverned by any rules. Sound crazy? Consider the results from Dutch towns where the approach has been tried:

Drivers start to behave in a very different way amid the new uncertainty, moving slowly, making eye contact with pedestrians, and becoming aware of much more than whether the lights have gone red. Or so the theory goes.

Evidence from Dutch towns is impressive. Safety records have improved, local officials report, and accidents, when they do happen are far less serious, because of the slow speeds.

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Yet overall cross-town speeds are no slower than before, because intersections are far more fluid and snarl-ups are rare.

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“We have fewer accidents and the accidents which do happen are less severe,” says Koop Kerkstra, a senior official in the northern Dutch town of Drachten. “We see a better flowing of traffic than when everything was regulated. With the new infrastructure, they can flow through Drachten in much less time.”

Why should environmentalists care? (I hope someday never to have to write that question again.) Consider first of all that cars idling in traffic jams are a major source of smog, and cars driving too fast are a major source of CO2, and this kind of approach addresses both those issues.

But more importantly, this approach creates shared spaces that encourage social interaction with neighbors, walking, and sense of a community and responsibility. (Remember all those?) It increases the quality of life of city-dwellers, and as every enviro should know, city-dwellers on average use less energy than their suburban counterparts. We need to get people into livable cities and out of their cars.

This would be, to say the least, a hard sell in the U.S., for a variety of cultural and geographical reasons. But still, why aren’t enviros trumpeting this kind of stuff from the rooftops? Instead of telling people what’s wrong with the way they live their lives, how about selling them on a different and better life? Rather than something to fear, give them something to want.

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Update [2005-1-29 14:42:23 by Dave Roberts]: Gristmill contributor Geoff Dabelko, who’s married to a Dane, writes to note that the list “Denmark, Scandinavia, and maybe Britain” is rather incoherent, as Denmark, along with Sweden and Norway, is part of Scandinavia. And of course the Dutch towns cited in the story are in the Netherlands, not Denmark. I apologize for passing along the confusion of the CSM reporter and for knowing deplorably little about geography.