Linguists have started thinking about things (such as writing dictionaries) descriptively rather than prescriptively. Descriptive linguistics recognizes that there is, “no language in itself… only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages” [Deleuze A Thousand Plateaus]. Instead of defining universal rules of language, the task of descriptive linguistics is simply to map patterns in use.
Unlike linguistics, the thoughts of traffic engineers have remained rigidly prescriptive, and lag behind the reality of the complex systems of streets and sidewalks they supposedly regulate. Their conservatism is understandable. Traffic engineers are charged with regulating what is for most of us, the most dangerous part of our day. But there is enormous potential in liberating public spaces from the regime of curbs and paint. Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer, created marvelous examples of such liberated spaces. Cars, people, bicycles, and even cafe tables are placed on the same plane. These spaces are safe because like Lawrence Halprin’s Ira Keller Fountain in Portland, they are obviously dangerous. People slow down, not because a little sign told them to, but because it would be dangerous if they didn’t. And, more importantly, they’d look like a total asshole if they didn’t.
In Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, Michael Sorkin praises the amazing (perhaps disappearing) self-regulation of the streets of India, where cars, rickshaws, scooters, bicycles and people on foot (can we abolish the word pedestrian please?) all cross paths without lines on the ground or lights in the air, and mostly without stopping. How is this possible? The short answer is everyone slows down and is careful. But there are more complex systems at work — there is a strong culture of citizen enforcement. Cause an accident at busy intersection and you’re likely to be swarmed and humiliated by a citizen mob. (Google it if you don’t believe me.)
For the moment, I live in Paris, a city that like most first world cities is subject to an incredible regime of prescriptive traffic laws — but there is light on the horizon. Recent law changes recognize that bicyclists can move safely (perhaps even more safely) through the city under a different set of rules than the cars and scooters that surround them. More inspiring still, is the quotidian culture of ignoring traffic laws. At almost all busy intersections there is at least one brave (and impatient) enough person to cross against the light. I like to think of them as a kind of morning commute Moses, because once they start, the masses follow. Innately people move in herds, and for good reason. Move with a crowd and you needn’t even look up from a text message to know when it’s safe to cross a street.
My friend recently recounted the tale of his uncle who came from India to the United States and got a ticket for jaywalking. Incredulous towards the fine, he couldn’t understand how the simple act of walking in public could be so strictly regulated and enforced. I am inspired by this man’s incredulity and hope our children may grow up with such an attitude as well. I have hope for a world where the concept of jaywalking doesn’t make sense.
BuildingSatire is a blog consisting of architectural satire, cynicism, and humor to alleviate the tension and pretension in professional architecture. we also have a twitter. whatup.