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May 26th, 2010 MARTY SMITH | Dr. Know
 

Dr. Know

     
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What is with the numerous four-way intersections in Southeast Portland that are lacking stop signs? Are we supposed to stop out of the goodness of our hearts? This has “accident waiting to happen” written all over it. —Fearing For My Life in SE

You’re talking about what municipal engineers and similar fun dates call “uncontrolled intersections.” Here’s what the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s blog writes about these intersections:

“Theoretically, uncontrolled intersections do a better job slowing traffic in neighborhoods because they create unpredictability [and] keep people who are driving and bicycling alert.”

I know what you’re thinking—if doing without stop signs keeps people alert, imagine how alert they’d be if we threw in a few alligator pits and maybe some rooftop snipers. I called PBOT to ask one question: Seriously?

“[The blogger] wasn’t pulling your leg,” says PBOT spokesman Dan Anderson. For more about the theory behind this laissez-faire-hockey-brawl approach to traffic regulation, he referred me to the work of Dutch engineer Hans Monderman, the Jimi Hendrix of roundabouts and pioneer of the urban-planning concept known as “shared space.”

Monderman found that efficiency and safety improve when people “directly negotiate their movement” with their fellow travelers, rather than brainlessly relying on signage. An unmarked intersection isn’t an unregulated, wild-west deathtrap; it’s an opportunity to join hands with your neighbors for a brief chorus of “Kumbaya.”

You gotta admit, that does sound like a pretty Portland concept. (Add “ad hoc traffic encounter groups” to “marijuana” and “pornography” on the list of things we have in common with the Dutch.) So, yes: we are supposed to stop out of the goodness of our hearts. Try to rise to the occasion.

 
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