Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A road in Cambridge was redesigned to actively confuse drivers.
Is confusion a good way to encourage safer driving? That seems to be the idea behind a new traffic calming ploy in Cambridge, England. The city reopened a remodeled street last week featuring what appears, at first, to be a roundabout. Look carefully, however, and you’ll notice that it isn’t a roundabout at all. It’s simply a circle of bricks laid into the street and adjoining sidewalk. It’s practical function is essentially nothing.
Or is it? The city’s thinking is that drivers will instinctively slow down when they approach this ghost roundabout. When they get closer, they will realize they’re actually on a normal street, and accelerate—but in the meantime they will have slowed down and watched the road more carefully on what could be a potentially dangerous corner.
The plan is interesting, if strangely devious, but it hasn’t received the warmest of welcomes from locals. Commenters on the Facebook page of BBC Look East, the region’s local TV news show, have damned the roundel for looking “like it was designed by a four-year-old with a pack of crayons” that made the street “look like a dog’s dinner.” Others said that “intentionally trying to confuse drivers is a ridiculous idea” that constituted a “safety disaster in the making.”
They may have a point. It’s not a bad thing to slow drivers down to prevent collisions, but suddenly coming across misleading road markings might risk spooking a nervier motorist. Then again, you could say the same about speed bumps, which can seriously shake up drivers if they don’t see them coming. If the ploy succeeds in saving a single life, or a single leg, or even just a few fenders from getting dented, then it will have paid for itself.
And yet, the whole thing is just a little eerie. There’s something unnervingly contemporary about road markings that seek to control drivers specifically through confusion and misinformation. The roundel essentially attempts to undermine drivers’ ability to tell what is real and what is false. It then uses their perplexity to enforce more submissive, hesitant behavior. In a contemporary scene where the concept of “post-truth” has become so ubiquitous that it’s moved from buzzword to cliché, it seems that even road planners are now tapping into the trend for misinformation. Is this a roundabout? Is this a cycle path? Am I imagining things? Where am I supposed to be going? The world has reached a very strange place when even road markings are designed to provoke an existential micro-crisis.