Traffic Calming sign, Ireland.
Photo by Shawn Duffy. flickr.com/photos/sduffy(cc)
Traffic calming has swept the world over the past 15 years. It's based on the simple idea that cars and trucks don't have exclusive ownership of our streets. Streets are shared public space that also belongs to people on foot and bicycles, in baby strollers and wheelchairs. Traffic calming uses design features such as narrowed roads or elevated crosswalks to slow traffic and to assert pedestrians' inalienable right to cross the street.
This idea has altered the landscape of urban life in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Germany, and Australia as people can now move about cities with more ease and pleasure. And now traffic calming is starting to make an impact in other parts of the world.
The origins of this ingenious idea can be traced to Delft, Netherlands, where residents of one neighborhood were fed up with cars racing along their streets, endangering children, pets, and peace of mind. One evening they decided to do something about it by dragging old couches and other furniture out into the roadway. They positioned these objects in such a way that cars could pass, but only if they slowed down.
The police soon arrived on the scene and had to admit that this project, although clearly illegal, was a good idea. Soon the city itself was implementing similar plans of its own, called woonerfs (Dutch for “living yards”), on streets plagued by unruly motorists.
One can only imagine the response of politicians and engineers if these neighbors had meekly come to city hall to ask permission to partially block the streets. They would have been hooted right out of the building. By taking direct action, however, they saved their neighborhood and brought comfort and civility to cities around the world.
Jay Walljasper wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Jay is a senior fellow at (PPS) and writes frequently on urban issues. You can contact him at
Excerpted from (2007, New Society Publishers) by Jay Walljasper in partnership with PPS, a New York-based group that helps citizens improve their communities. Order the book at .