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Are towns really safer without traffic lights?

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But Bohmte broke new ground. In Germany, a country fond of rules, Bohmte did what politicians had hitherto not dared to do.

"What's revolutionary about Bohmte is that it took off its signs on a state highway with a lot of traffic," says Heiner Monheim, a traffic management expert at the University of Trier, speaking at a recent European conference on sign-free towns convened here. Beyond that, Monheim says, the model's real legacy is to have brought people closer to "rediscovering and appreciating cities not only as traffic places but also as human, social places."

Just like so many other German communities, Bohmte's location as a busy artery was both its blessing and its curse. Close to 13,000 cars and trucks would speed along its main street every day. "Drivers didn't care about kids," says Klaus Mueller, strolling about with his grandchild and noting that the flow of cars is more slow and steady now.

Because Bohmte's main street is a state highway, the town cannot forbid truck traffic. Mayor Klaus Goedejohann knew that the heavy traffic spoilt the town's atmosphere, but that it also provided the town's livelihood. "How do we manage to meet the interest of all the traffic participants without excluding anybody?" he recalls thinking.

Then Mr. Goedejohann heard of a radical traffic-management philosophy called "shared space." Pioneered by a Dutch engineer who thought towns were safer with fewer rules, it envisioned open surfaces on which motorists and pedestrians could "negotiate" with one another by eye contact, other signals, and a greater consideration for one another.

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