Writing: What If Austin Used Mimes To Encourage Better Street User Behavior?

Posted on September 30th, 2009 at 2:54 pm by in Writing

Writing: What If Austin Used Mimes To Encourage Better Street User Behavior?

If you missed last week’s post, the first installment of this two part series, click (here)

How about a brief quiz to start things off, shall we?

1. Which would cause drivers to be more careful and drive conservatively when passing through an area with a substantial deer population?

a. A high-tech flashing sign with animated deer.
b. A deer carcass on the side of the road.

2. Which of the following is more effective at causing drivers to slow down as they pass through a neighborhood with lots of children?

a. A sign stating ‘Children Playing’.
b. A child’s bicycle left on a sidewalk.

3. What bad conduct did a former mayor of Bogota, Colombia successfully modify through the use of behavior mocking mimes in his formerly lawless city?

a. Narco-terrorism.
b. Traffic violations.

4. Which is more effective at getting you to slow down?

a. A ‘Speed Zone’ or ‘Traffic Monitored By Radar’ sign.
b. A cop sitting on the side of the road with a radar gun.

Whether you consider it an anomaly or a beacon of possibility, the first place to be redesigned around the idea of risk compensation or the underlying reasons behind why ‘b’ is the correct answer to all of the given questions is the formerly obscure town of Oudehaske in the Netherlands. Strapped for cash, Hans Monderman, the traffic engineer, simply couldn’t afford the normal traffic calming measures, such as speed bumps, which had recently come into vogue. He also had developed a theory through the careful observation of intersections, streets and accidents sites that the social life or social pressures of a place are more powerful controllers of behavior than abstract rules. He actually was an avid fan and proponent of the control, and efficiency of the Autobahn but through his work in Oudehaske and elsewhere, he came to believe that we need to apply a different type of logic to the design of our city streets. Instead of the applying the Autobahn rules of protect the driver at all costs, predictability, place-less uniformity and efficiency to our city streets, by designing around a place’s social life or livability, Monderman believed that we might actually make the streets safer, and believe it or not, more efficient.

What were the results?

He redesigned the main streets in Oudehaske to match the character and social life of the town; he made them look and function like country roads. He removed lane lines, sidewalks and made the road narrow enough that users often have to negotiate with one another to pass, just as you have to be prepared to do driving down any country road or passing through the parking lot at the HEB. The results of his designed uncertainty? Considerably slower traffic speeds through town and a dramatic drop in accidents. Signage? You will only find them at the edge of town announcing the absence of signs throughout the community.

But what about intersections?

In the town of Drachten he replaced traffic signals at an intersection that handles 20,000 cars a day with a ‘square-about’ in which he also removed traditional space defining features such as curbs. Gridlock and injuries galore? No sir. Instead there has been a significant decrease in traffic incidents and one can argue that greater efficiency (traffic and gas) is achieved because vehicles never come to a complete stop.


This summer while doing unrelated research in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood in Berlin, I stumbled upon close relatives of Monderman’s creations. Whether it was the unannounced narrowing of a two way road to one lane (as shown in the picture), the eradication of sidewalks in key public spaces or the elimination of stop signs at intersections, it was remarkable to linger in these places and watch users’ reactions as they traversed the streets. Even to an unskilled observer the uncertainty and hesitation was evident on their faces, and in their actions.


Some of readers of this column have rightly commented that Austin’s driving and road use culture is considerably different from places like the Netherlands or Germany. Even the bike lanes in Berlin are complex requiring a greater degree of attention and care than most accomplished cyclists are accustomed to in the United States. However, the cultural argument for out rightly ignoring the implications of these ‘experiments’ begins to break down as these ideas have begun to be successfully applied to places that are a bit harder to ‘write off’, such as London and West Palm Beach, Florida.

So should we go ahead and apply these ideas to Austin?

Yanking all of Austin’s stop signs and traffic control measures would, quite frankly be moronic, as is the blind application of any idea from one situation to the next. More important for considering the future of Austin’s streets is the primary underlying premise behind the success of all of these precedents; that ‘livability’ and ‘sociability’ of the streets is the first concern rather than safety and efficiency. By first considering our streets as public spaces and making them places that we actually want to inhabit rather than just pass through, we may actually make them safer, more efficient and more economically vibrant.

So, how do we define livability for the streets of Austin’s many varied neighborhoods?

How do we find the right cocktail of solutions that meets the culture of an area?

Testing and endeavoring to Make Austin’s Streets Weirder are two possible solutions that I will discuss next week.

In the meantime, if Antanas Mockus was able to positively change Bogota’s lawless street culture through humor, mimes and absurdity (in addition to more traditional measures), what would a weirder version of Austin’s streets look like? How can you imagine that we might make Austin’s streets safer by making them weirder?

Thanks for all of your feedback and comments over the past week, keep your ideas and observations coming.


Want to read more on the people, places and ideas discussed in this article?
Hans Monderman, woonerfs and shared space-

Wired Magazine


There are also numerous videos on YouTube of Hans Monderman’s creations.

Antanas Mockus and the traffic calming mimes of Bogota-

Harvard Gazette article on Mockus

David Engwich, Joost Vahl, SUSTRANS and other alternative methods of impacting driver behavior-



Driving in general-

Vanderbilt, Tom. ‘Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do And What It Says About Us.’ Knopf: New York, 2008.


The Weekly What If? is a new weekly column by Alex Gilliam. Alex Gilliam is the founder of Public Workshop, an organization dedicated to helping individuals, schools, and communities achieve great things through design. The Weekly What If? focuses on re-imagining various aspects of how Austin, as a city, functions and feels. The goal is to foster a larger conversation about the present and future shape of our City.