The human side of traffic calming (or how I learned to stop worrying and love disorder)

This week, we're sharing stories from Strong Towns members who will be speaking at our transportation summit in Tulsa, OK beginning on Thursday, March 30. Marielle Brown is leading a workshop entitled "Taking it to the Streets: Using Temporary Traffic Calming for Permanent Change." Her workshop will discuss and demonstrate tactical methods for temporary and long-term traffic calming that can be applied in any town. This article showcases traffic calming efforts around the world. 



Last week, John Oliver introduced his American audience to a program in La Paz, Bolivia that features young people dressed as zebras, dancing in the street and mocking people driving to encourage safer driving. Unfortunately, John Oliver fixated on the zebras as a humorous antidote to politics, rather than appreciating how the zebras are a vivid demonstration of how wrong conventional American traffic engineering can be about human behavior.

In Bolivia, the zebras show that people can and do start driving slowly when they are confronted by uncertainty, intrigue, and some gentle derision. When streets are more interesting and complex, people driving (generally) slow down in order to better understand what is going on, and to be able to react to whatever happens next. This is not a peculiar Bolivian trait, but rather universal human behavior that can be observed around the world.

The zebra program is modeled on the traffic mime program in Bogota, Colombia, where mimes mocked people breaking traffic laws in order to encourage civility and safety. The city claimed over a 50% reduction in traffic fatalities after introducing the mimes as part of a larger safety program.

Individual activists have also demonstrated that performance art and unexpected activity can make people driving more attentive, at least temporarily. In Mexico City, Jorge Cáñez dresses as a superhero named Peatónito to defend pedestrian’s rights while scolding people driving carelessly. In Australia, David Engwicht recruited residents to calm traffic through “intrigue and uncertainty.”

Peatonito (image from

Peatonito (image from

In Engwicht’s Street Reclaiming Events, neighbors would progressively calm their streets by placing furniture in an area that felt safe and congregating. Participants expanded the reclaimed area where and when it felt safe. The goal was to temporarily create a street where children would be able to safely play with their neighbors. Engwicht cautioned against choosing a street with poor sight lines and he recommended putting up a creative sign to alert people driving of the upcoming activity. But overall, his demonstrations relied on people creating complexity on their streets and communicating with people driving.

The success of programs around the world that deliberately add disorder to public streets is a strong refutation of the US’s conventional approach to street design- unexpected activity, and a sense of danger and chaos can make people drive more slowly and pay more attention, while eliminating complexity can entice people to drive faster and more dangerously. In Engwicht’s demonstrations, it is the community’s sense of safety, and their available resources, that determines the next step and not a traffic study or a crash count. It requires implicit trust that people driving cars are human and will slow and pay attention when everything in their environment screams at them to do just that.

It also requires accepting that risk is inherent when we allow car traffic and people walking to mix. Traffic zebras, mimes, and street reclamations will always be vulnerable to people driving recklessly; a traffic zebra was killed by a person driving in 2014. In the US, we strive to eliminate the risk people driving recklessly pose on everyone else by widening streets and removing street trees, mailboxes, and bus stations. The result is streets that let people driving careen all over the road, and invite the rest of us to join them in driving carelessly. Paradoxically, this can increase the risk of severe crashes, while scaring away anyone who is interested in walking, bicycling, or just enjoying their neighborhood.

While most US cities do not permit street reclaiming events or sponsor programs to mock people driving, it is still possible to observe people slowing down and driving carefully due to intrigue and uncertainty on our streets. Construction zones in cities often demonstrate that even in the US, people driving cars can respond to their environment by slowing down and paying attention.

Constructing a building that meets the sidewalk means the street is an extension of the work zone, with cones, dumpsters, concrete trucks, and orange-vested workers moving in controlled chaos. People driving start to slow, drift cautiously into the opposing lane to avoid large parked trucks, and otherwise negotiate space. Most alleys achieve the same calming effect through their narrow width, two-way traffic, and expected pedestrian activity.

People driving in the US, like the rest of the world, can slow down and drive safely if their environment demands that they pay attention.

Even random debris on streets can get people to slow their cars and pay attention. Last weekend my husband and I watched a group of late-night partiers take a cone from a construction site and place it in the right lane of a four lane road, on a steep downhill slope. Though the street was dark and had limited sight lines, every car we saw come down the hill in the right lane braked and merged into the left lane to avoid the single cone.

This is just an anecdote, but it suggests that people driving in the US, like the rest of the world, can slow down and drive safely if their environment demands that they pay attention. We need to highlight and document the ways that routinely show that people are capable of driving more safely when their environment demands it, as we chip away at the idea that streets must be designed for people driving recklessly, rather than designed to make us all drive better.

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About the Author

Marielle Brown, AICP, is passionate about helping communities create lovable places that work for people of all ages and abilities. She worked at Trailnet, a non-profit in St. Louis, on bicycle and pedestrian planning, transportation policy, and tactical urbanism for five years. She recently moved to Seattle, where she continues to advocate for better streets and fiscally responsible transportation. In addition to her planning work, she has first-hand experience with multi-modal transportation planning around the world through her experiences living in Beijing, Hiroshima, Paris, and Seoul. Marielle received her Master's in Urban and Regional Planning from Portland State University.