Leading into a new Stage: It’s all in the signs?…or maybe not!
The following is a conversation that I imagine might have taken place in the late 1970s between an official at the Dutch Ministry of Transport and a civil engineer called Hans Monderman.
“Hans, it’s Pieter from the Ministry. How are you?”
“I’m good thank you Pieter, and yourself?”
“Very well thank you. I have been reading your recent proposals concerning the new traffic scheme in Drachten. Very interesting. It has caught the attention of a number of very senior people around the Ministry, including the Minister.”
“That’s good. Does it mean that you are proposing to proceed with the plan?”
“Well the minister has a few points that he would like me to clarify first if you have the time to talk.”
“Of course, fire away. You know that I can talk about this subject until the cows come home.”
“<Laughter> Yes I know. But let me get down to where the tyre hits the road, if you’ll excuse the pun. There are a lot of raised eyebrows at your proposal you know? People are saying, ‘You propose to solve the traffic problems in Drachten by doing nothing!’”
“That’s a little unfair ?…”
“?…I know, and believe me that’s what I keep telling them. But you are proposing to remove all of the traffic signs in the middle of the town.”
“And those leading out of town, especially those cute ones with a picture of a cow that warn of cattle?”
“Of course, what do you expect when you get out of the town. There are fields and there are cows. Why do you need a sign?”
“And then Hans, there is the proposal to get rid of the white line down the middle of the road. How are people supposed to know which side of the road they are supposed to be driving on?”
“Pieter, what side of the road do we drive on here in Holland?”
“And when you are in your car, which side is closest to the right?”
“The Passenger side?”
“So when you are driving why do you need a white line to tell you which side you should be on? So long as the passenger side is furthest away from the oncoming cars, you will be on the right won’t you?”
“Hmm I suppose so. I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before. But what about pedestrian safety? As we understand it, you are going to get rid of the pedestrian crossings because motorists will automatically stop when they see somebody waiting to cross the road?”
“And you are proposing to get rid of the kerb between the road and the sidewalks and just replace them with different coloured bricks to emphasise the difference?”
“And are you really proposing to put fountains along the side of the road so that motorists can admire them when they are caught in the occasional traffic jam?”
“And you want to vary the height of the fountains to reflect the level of traffic so that motorists can choose not to continue on the route thereby reducing the number of times the high street gets congested?”
“And you really believe that this will reduce speeds to below 30kph and will reduce accidents by in excess of 30% a year?”
“Hans there are people around the Ministry who think that you have lost control of your senses. Don’t you realise that motorists cannot be trusted? They have to be told explicitly what they can and cannot do. As a traffic engineer it is your responsibility to take care of the pedestrians, because they have no chance against the speeding cars on the road? You have to build systems that allow us to monitor drivers and when they break the rules allow us to prosecute them efficiently and effectively. How do you respond to these arguments?”
“Pieter, if you treat motorists as idiots, then that is exactly how they will behave. If on the other hand you say to them that you believe that they are responsible human beings, then they will behave responsibly. That is what my proposal is trying to do. The traditional approach doesn’t seem to be working, why not give it a chance in Drachten to see who is right or wrong?”
“OK Hans I’ll pass your comments back up the chain of command to see what they have to say. I’ll get back to you in a few days with their response.”
“Thank you Pieter, I am sure that you will do an excellent job in getting them to see sense over this. I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.”
Hans Monderman is one of the many unsung heroes who spend their working lives attempting to make a real difference to the lives of individuals by stepping back from the accepted status quo and challenging the collective wisdom in this case as to how best manage traffic flow in busy town centres. I have no idea whether Hans has evolved to tier two or whether his worldview is either Integral or Holistic. What I do know is that Hans Monderman was most certainly Integrally inspired in putting forward his proposals which were totally counter-intuitive and ran in the face of the accepted best practices for managing traffic in urban and suburban environments.
From our vantage point of being able to review Hans’ proposals through an integral lens, we can start to understand exactly where he was coming from and why he must have had many difficult conversations like the imaginary one postulated above. The motorcar has always been viewed with suspicion by the authorities. From the earliest days when every vehicle with a petrol engine required a man with a red flag to walk in front of it, there has been a deep suspicion of drivers and an unwritten understanding that they are not to be trusted.
From a spiral perspective, traffic planners were deeply rooted in the absolute belief that the only way that motorists could be tolerated was if they were subject to an environment where their every action was planned and controlled for them. It was classic Blue (or Amber in the new Wilber scheme of things) seeking to curb and curtail the excesses of the Red motorist. And whilst this might have been the case for a small proportion of the motoring population, it was failing miserably because the vast majority of motorists were more likely to be Orange than Red.
Jerry Seinfeld captured this syndrome beautifully in one of his stand-up routines when he described a trip back from Palm Springs to Los Angeles. As he was driving down the freeway he would come across a sign telling him the speed limit was 55mph and the fine for exceeding it was $50. His immediate reaction was “I can afford that!” And so he continued on his journey speeding away until he came to a sign that told him that the fine was $500, when he immediately applied the brakes, as he realised, “I can’t afford that.” (Must have been before the TV series was a hit.)
Apart from the humour, Seinfeld was making a critical point that motorists are rational and use reason to influence their decisions. Monderman recognised this and proposed his revolutionary strategy to reduce to an absolute minimum the amount of controls placed upon motorists and trust them to be reasonable in the way that they use the roads especially when they have to share that space with people who do not have the benefit of the body armour known as a car.
Hans persisted with his vision and belief even though it ran counter to the wisdom of his profession and most of the civil leadership at the time. Of course, being in Holland, he had a slightly easier door to push against than most other countries in the world and he was eventually allowed to implement his “experiment” in Drachten.
To the total surprise of the powers that be, Hans Monderman was proven right. Without the paraphernalia of signage, legislation and threats of fines and imprisonment the motorists in Drachten reduced their speed, acted courteously and accidents were cut drastically. Slowly, this new philosophy is spreading across the globe and research in the UK shows that by taking away just the white line down the middle of the road reduces accidents by in excess of 35%.
If there was a hall of fame for leaders who act in an Integrally Informed way, then I believe that Hans Monderman should be added to its roll call at the earliest opportunity. Through his understanding that things can be different and his perseverance against the might of the collective wisdom at the time, Hans Monderman has started a revolution that is changing the way that we drive our cars in certain towns, villages and cities. He is making the world safer and at the same time introducing respect where none existed before. As an Integrally Informed Leader, can one really ask for much more?