While home in the USA for Christmas, I saw a CNN segment about the Dutch going towards chaos theory in traffic management. The idea is that eliminating traffic signs and lane striping slows drivers down and requires them to consider what other drivers are doing. The video never showed up on the CNN website, but Wired Magazine published an article about the same Dutch traffic engineer and town over a year ago. Here are excerpts from that article:
Riding in his green Saab, we glide into Drachten, a 17th-century village that has grown into a bustling town of more than 40,000. We pass by the performing arts center, and suddenly, there it is: the Intersection. It's the confluence of two busy two-lane roads that handle 20,000 cars a day, plus thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians. Several years ago, Monderman ripped out all the traditional instruments used by traffic engineers to influence driver behavior - traffic lights, road markings, and some pedestrian crossings - and in their place created a roundabout, or traffic circle. The circle is remarkable for what it doesn't contain: signs or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk, so it's unclear exactly where the car zone ends and the pedestrian zone begins. To an approaching driver, the intersection is utterly ambiguous - and that's the point.
Monderman and I stand in silence by the side of the road a few minutes, watching the stream of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians make their way through the circle, a giant concrete mixing bowl of transport. Somehow it all works. The drivers slow to gauge the intentions of crossing bicyclists and walkers. Negotiations over right-of-way are made through fleeting eye contact. Remarkably, traffic moves smoothly around the circle with hardly a brake screeching, horn honking, or obscene gesture. "I love it!" Monderman says at last. "Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now, as you see, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other. You can't expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road."
The Wired Magazine article ends with the principles of chaos applied to traffic engineering:
How to Build a Better Intersection: Chaos = Cooperation
1. Remove signs: The architecture of the road - not signs and signals - dictates traffic flow.
2. Install art: The height of the fountain indicates how congested the intersection is.
3. Share the spotlight: Lights illuminate not only the roadbed, but also the pedestrian areas.
4. Do it in the road: Cafés extend to the edge of the street, further emphasizing the idea of shared space.
5. See eye to eye: Right-of-way is negotiated by human interaction, rather than commonly ignored signs.
6. Eliminate curbs: Instead of a raised curb, sidewalks are denoted by texture and color.
Throughout the CNN segment, and then in reading the Wired article, I kept thinking that this is nothing new -- nobody has done traffic chaos much better than Viet Nam.
The layout of downtown Saigon was put in place by the colonial French over a hundred years ago, featuring traffic circles with fountains or statues reflecting the importance of the traffic circle. Today, traffic flows around the circles with multiple streets (as many as seven) entering the circle from all angles. The above design principles have been applied in general throughout Ho Chi Minh City.
There are any number of expat blog articles about the chaos of traffic in Vietnamese cities (this one by Virtual -Doug's wife is my favorite), but most come around to the conclusion that it is definitely chaos, but that it works fairly smoothly and intuitively.
Jezzaroo posted a video to YouTube the captures the smooth-running chaos of the traffic circle in front of the Ben Thanh market perfectly.