It was a typical Dutch small town in the North Friesland region, so dull it barely had a name. That is, until one day someone removed all the road signs.
We're not just talking about a few spare stop signs, either. They utterly destroyed every single aspect of traffic control on every single road. No lane markings, no lines and no signs. Only directional signs, 15 traffic lights (as opposed to the previous 5,000) and complete anarchy.
Look out! She's got sophisticated societal ideals! And a bike pump!
Except that, surprisingly, things didn't go Mad Max in a heartbeat. Instead of holding impromptu street racing competitions in spiky dune buggies, people actually slowed down and paid extra attention to their surroundings. As a result, serious accidents took a dramatic nosedive. Pedestrian fatalities at some particularly risky junctions dropped to zero.
Yes, things got better.
The mysterious someone who had removed the signs had, of course, been the government. The whole thing was an experiment by town planners of the Friesland area who felt like seeing how pedestrians, drivers and cyclists would fare if left to their own devices. While the plan had all the makings of the biggest, most dickish practical joke in recorded history, the results were extremely positive. All stripped roads quickly became so safe that pedestrians could cross with their eyes closed.
Not that anything was particularly stopping them before.
The idea behind the experiment was the theory that relying on signs means you aren't paying as much attention to other people on the road. Remove the signs, and road users actually have to rely on their eyes and acknowledge each other. Also contributing to the safety is the fact that without signs to tell how fast to drive, town area traffic has instinctively slowed to an average 18 mph. The near-absence of traffic lights has helped traffic flow more smoothly, so the overall journey time doesn't slow down too much, either.
"Hey wait, is that car being operated by a human? Move on, good sir!"
The idea of sign-free traffic is spreading through Europe like wildfire. Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Belgium have all taken their first baby steps in removing theirs. Others still are considering giving it a go.
Mind you, the whole no-signs schtick only works on urban areas. We're no experts, but we're guessing the removal of, say, speed limits on a motorway would quickly result in Blues Brothers levels of wrecked vehicles.
"We got a full tank of gas, it's dark, we're wearing sunglasses and my leg is broken in about seven places."
Oh, wait, the autobahn replaced the speed limit with a request that drivers use common sense, and it has a better safety record than U.S. highways. And lest you think that wouldn't work in America, Montana has tried highways both with and without speed limits. The very presence of speed limits doubled the number of fatal car accidents. Again, traffic engineers have been fighting for higher or nonexistent speed limits on highways for years based on evidence that driving without speed limits makes us more cautious when it comes to lane changes and buckling up.
"Your limitations actually seem more like a challenge, Smiley Face Guy."
Ah, New York City! The biggest metropolis on the coast that gets America's day started. A giant knot of humanity, defined by its constant flux of people coming and going. Oh, and the source of 75 percent of all nationwide delays in air travel. It doesn't matter if you live in St. Louis or Seattle, 3 out of every 4 flight delays you've experienced in your life started from New York.
"And if you look to your right, you'll see what the entire world revolves around. Assholes."
As counterintuitive as that might seem, it makes sense. Apart from being one of the globe's angriest hornet's nests for business, the Big Apple is also one of the most popular holiday destinations, playing host to an insane 48.7 million tourists in 2010 alone.
Yet the insane amount of travelers is only a small part of the problem. The real issue is the routes that airliners use to enter and leave the city airspace. They weren't originally designed to handle the two million flights that pass over the city every year. They were designed for the mail planes that connected New York and San Francisco.
In the 1920s.
When the only two directions were "up" and "face down in a ditch."
Back then, New York was lucky if a thousand flights passed through a year. The fact that these routes haven't been updated in 90 years means that a handful of poor, stressed-out air traffic controllers have to maneuver the aeronautical equivalent of an elephant stampede through a drinking straw. Obviously, they're not always perfect, which is what it would take. Flights that leave one of New York's airports a minute late can cause hourlong delays in Los Angeles, giving the phrase "New York minute" a completely new meaning.
That's the time between air traffic control telling you to move off and the plane behind you smashing into your economy class.
The solution, not surprisingly, is to use more sky than they'd originally been using for the handful of mail planes in the '20s. It's not like the sky is getting smaller or anything. The reason we'd been running out all these years is because we just weren't using it. In 2007, after decades of dicking around, the FAA finally started dealing with the issue. Their catchily named "New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Metropolitan Area Airspace Project" has the noble goal of knocking three all-important minutes off each plane's takeoff time by 2012.
The plan involves three key elements. First, they expanded the designated New York airspace area from its former limits to a much wider area that extends over four states. Next, they added six new westbound flight paths to the current two. Finally -- and this is the kicker -- they reorganized the flights so that multiple planes can use the same flight path. For years, the fact that they were tracking planes on a 2-D map meant they treated planes like they were driving around on a flat surface. It took them until 2007 to figure out planes are able to fly at different heights. The people responsible for the whole nation's air travel have wasted decades of people's lives by failing to take into account the third dimension of air travel.
"Holy shit, is that ... is that sorcery?"
Every time you've sat in an airplane terminal cursing whatever unavoidable circumstance intervened in your life, it's much more likely that it was caused by a handful of guys in New York operating under the assumption that planes magically become as tall as skyscrapers as soon as they take off.
The fact that they're finally correcting this assumption could be taken as a sign that we're headed in the right direction. Just try not to think about the fact that it took one city almost a century to figure that out.
You can find more from Adam at Alert Level Stork! He also helped to write Four Humors, an anthology of short stories published for charity by Wordplague. His friend Kevin Axt also runs the brilliantly funny webcomic Donuts for Sharks and you should go there right now.
For more blatantly obvious things we've been overlooking, check out 7 Basic Things You Won't Believe You're All Doing Wrong and 6 Death-Defying Stunts That Are Secretly Easy to Do.
And stop by LinkSTORM to get back at your boss for making you work today.
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