Thursday, December 01, 2005

Life Is A Highway, of Bitterness and Sorrow

Recently eaten: homemade corned beef
Recent annoyance: that nubbin of flesh that sticks out on your tongue after you bite it a couple of times

Taking civil disobedience and pissing people off to new levels is our good friend Ted Dewan. I plan on a few such statements myself. They include:

  • Sitting down at the mall to protest urban sprawl
  • Sitting at the front of the bus to encourage better emissions standards on public transportation
  • Walking instead of taking a taxi to protest the use of fare zones in the District instead of taxi meters
  • Eating four square meals a day to protest eating disorders and unhealthy body image
Driving the argument home
"A campaign is under way to lower speed limits to 20mph in urban areas, but what's going to make drivers slow down? A bossy road sign, a hump in the road or a three-piece suite parked in the road?

There's no reason that traffic calming should be boring or without a sense of humour, says children's author and traffic campaigner, Ted Dewan.

And using his Oxford residential street as a test laboratory, Mr Dewan has been working on more creative ways to reduce traffic speed.

"People are too used to being scolded by warning signs telling them about lethal speed and driving. It's like 'tell me something new'. But they're not used to having their wit engaged," he says.

So in a spirit that combines a sense of entertainment with a serious intent, he has come up with the idea of "folk traffic calming".

This is where art installations meet road safety, a kind of sleeping policeman that's been influenced by Damien Hirst.

These type of "DIY traffic-calming happenings" are described by their creator as "roadwitches" and have included an 11-feet high rabbit, a big bed (for a sleeping policeman), a Casualty-style fake crash scene for Halloween and the setting up of a living room in the middle of the road.

"There's an element of fun and mischief, but underneath is the ambition to encourage people to re-examine how roads are used," says Mr Dewan.

"With the living room, it was the most direct way of saying 'We live here. This is our living space.'"

And he says that residents really enjoyed the strangeness of being able to relax outside in their own street, rather than feel it was a place only belonging to the cars that race up and down it.

Residents had forgotten what it was like to have a street without the usual high-volume and low-courtesy of passing traffic.

Initially the street was legally closed, to allow the setting up of this outdoor living room, including such middle-England touches as a standard lamp.

It was then re-arranged to allow traffic to pass through, but Mr Dewan says the reactions of motorists showed how motorists expect nothing to stand in their way.

"A driver of a 4x4 didn't so much disapprove - he was too crazed and violent for that. He seemed to be made psychotic by the idea that roads could exist for anything other than him to drive on," he says.

Campaigners say the current 30mph limit is too high for residential areas

This motorist deliberately drove into pieces of the living room furniture and then called the council to demand that they shift whatever was left lying in the road.

There were gender differences too, says Mr Dewan. Male drivers didn't seem to like the idea of driving across the carpet. But female drivers were less sympathetic and more aggressive, with a stronger "get out of my way attitude".

It's this sense of entitlement that he says he wants to challenge - leaving a 4x4 blocking half the street is called parking but a couple of chairs and a magazine rack put in the same place is seen as a senseless provocation.

"My daughter isn't allowed to throw snowballs at school, because it's considered too dangerous. But it's meant to be acceptable that she can walk home only inches away from cars driving at lethal speeds. There is something weird about this, a deep cultural bias."

Mr Dewan has plans to extend the roadwitch concept, sending the message that there are "creative, non-confrontational" ways that residents can control what's going on in their own roads - and to assert that roads do not only belong to drivers."

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