BOHMTE, Germany June 27, 2008 — -- In the small town of Bohmte, near Hannover in Northern Germany, traffic lights and road signs are a thing of the past.
The city is the first one in Germany to have scrapped all 'road clutter' in a bid to make the streets a safer place for its 13,500 inhabitants.
The community has taken part in project called "Shared Space," which was sponsored by the European Union.
Seven partner cities from five European countries cooperated over the past four years in the project, which aims to combine rather than separate the various functions of public spaces.
The main challenge is to improve the quality of public spaces and the living environment without needing to restrict or ban motorized traffic.
One tool to help in that effort is to do away with traffic lights and street signs.
"European Union traffic experts have helped to redesign the long through-road into an open square with no street signs whatsoever. The idea is for vehicles and pedestrians to use shared space in town, and to enhance the quality of public space without banning traffic completely," explains Mayor Klaus Goedejohann.
"In the city center, all conventional traffic signals have been taken out and the traffic is no longer regulated by traffic signs - people do the regulating themselves. And that is the whole idea, namely that the road users, pedestrians and motorists alike, should take each other into account and return to their everyday good manners."
When asked how the system works, Goedejohann told ABC News, "With street lights and traffic signs gone, there is only one iron rule in place – you give way to the right, whether it's a car, bike or a pedestrian and the open square does not only look good, it causes motorists to automatically go slow, which means people can make eye contact with each other in order to negotiate the right of way," he said.
But will it work in large cities? Some people think not. But the theory will soon be put to big- city test when London tries it in two locations, including the busy shopping area at Kensington High Street.
Michael Cramer, a Green Party politician and member of the European Parliament in Brussels, approves of the basic concept but worries if it will work in major urban areas." The weakness of the concept is that it generally works only in small cities, the way I understand it, the limit is about 25,000 cars per day."
Cramer is also is concerned how people with special needs. "If all the traffic lights are gone, how does a blind person make it safely across the street?"
But back in Bohmte, the reaction has been good, so far.
Jutta Luebbert, rides her bike to work at the bakery on Bremer Strasse. "I was rather skeptical at first, but it seems to work quite well," she said in a telephone interview. "It looks much more like a village street now, really nice."
A hairdresser, Stefan Hueffmeier, is also very satisfied and happy that his customers can now park at his front door, "The traffic situation before did not allow for cars to park right outside my shop, but now my customers can drive up and that's much more convenient for them."
Friedrich Wilhelm Asshorn is the owner of Landgasthaus Gieseke, a restaurant and a small hotel situated on Bremer Strasse.
He praised the new concept, "My customers like the new traffic situation. Our main street is now more a square, cars must go very slow and that makes it a safer situation, not only just for our guests but also for the kids that go to school on this side of Bremer Strasse."
Goedejohann also points to another positive side effect: not a single accident has been reported lately. He says, "There were about 50 accidents a year at the town's main intersection before the change, but now we haven't seen any. That is certainly a good sign that the new concept works well."