Spiegel Online has a fascinating article about how some European cities are experimenting with reducing or eliminating traffic signals and signs, and in some places, even removing the distinction between sidewalks and roads. So at this point, you may be thinking, “how does this relate to emotion?”…
Psychologists have known for a long time that people tend to ignore most of the signs in their environment. This is related to the human capacity to process information. At any moment, we are only taking in a small amount of the information that is available to our senses, and our emotions help us to decide what information is important. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, what we pay attention to is strongly connected to one dimension of emotion; the dimension of physiological arousal or anxiety.
The thinking behind this plan is that removing regulation from the environment increases the personal responsibility and social interaction required to move through a town or city. Entering an environment that you know is unregulated (in terms of traffic and pedestrian movement) would cause your arousal/anxiety levels to increase, commanding more of your attention and increasing the caution and consideration with which people conduct their daily movements. The image of the chaotic medieval town comes to mind here, with carts, pedestrians and animals all vying for passage through the crowded space.
So far, the experiment has only been attempted in smaller European towns with successful results in terms of accident reduction. I’m not sure how well this would work in larger centers. In North America, small towns might benefit from this sort of setup. But I wonder if the same motivations that precipitated the intial shift to traffic regulation over the last hundred years will come back to haunt us. All it takes is one or two irresponsible people to ruin it for everyone.