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What has traffic control got to do with the modern workplace?

What has traffic control got to do with the modern workplace?

You may well ask, but the modern workplace is still based on industrial-age methodology when what is needed is a far more flexible approach. So when I was looking at the development of traffic control ideas that began in the 1960’s, many of the issues sounded familiar.

During the second half of the twentieth century, ownership of motor vehicles in the UK was growing rapidly and there was a need to manage this growth amid concerns over the movement of traffic and people.

In 1961, an engineer appointed to report on the situation, Colin Buchanan, took a modernist approach of structure, standardisation and control. In the Netherlands, nearly two decades later, Hans Monderman took a different approach, with a more flexible idea of ‘shared space’ (Elizabeth Silva, 2009 p.333), greater interaction and individual responsibility.

The growing problem

The situation that led to both these concepts being developed and implemented was a concern by authorities and road users about the growing amount of motor vehicles and their movement in relation to other users, particularly pedestrians.

In the UK, Department of Transport figures, published in 2007 (Elizabeth Silva, 2009, p.326) illustrate the point: the number of vehicle kilometres, more than doubled between 1949 and 1959, and nearly doubled again in the next ten years. Cars and taxis accounted for most of this growth, increasing by over 700% in this twenty-year period.

The question raised by this concern was how traffic should be managed to ensure it is free-flowing and safe and the approaches described above provided two very different answers.


In the UK, the Ministry of Transport commissioned Colin Buchanan, an engineer, architect and planner, to report on the situation and he subsequently produced the ‘Traffic in Towns’ report in 1963 (Elizabeth Silva, 2009, p.327). Buchanan was influenced by the modernist thinking of the time. As it translates to architecture and infrastructure, the modernist movement seeks to ‘improve and reshape (the) environment with the aid of practical experimentation, scientific knowledge, or technology’ (Wikipedia, 2014).

It is about designing a better society using a rational, standardised approach, with modern technology and materials where form follows function and there is no room for individual interpretation (Elizabeth Silva, 2009, p.339).

Shared Space

Nearly two decades later, the authorities in the Netherlands appointed Hans Monderman as Head of Road Safety for the region of Friesland, to look at the same problem. He considered the modernist approach somewhat over-prescriptive and reacted against it, believing instead in the idea of ‘Shared Space’, based on the interaction, negotiation and individual responsibility of each user of the space.

This meant eradicating street furniture and signage and creating a more social, communal environment of interaction based on consideration of others and common sense. This means that each user takes responsibility for their actions.

Community versus isolation

An important difference between the two men is how they view the problem of traffic management. Buchanan’s modernist approach seeks to standardise behaviour with clear boundaries and expectations.

Buchanan embodies this approach with his segregation of users into corridors for vehicles and ‘rooms’ or ‘environmental units’ for work or leisure activity (Elizabeth Silva, 2009, p.328).

These zones were delineated by signage and street furniture, like traffic lights and white lines. Each user has their own space and time to move: one type of traffic flows for a period, then stops to allow the other traffic to flow. Users here are in opposition to each other, they are isolated because it is not part of their community: they have to cross this space to get from one part of the community to another.

The flexible approach pioneered by Monderman, on the other hand, intends users to share the space. The environment is not separated into demarcated areas like roadway and pavement, but is subject to ‘psychological calming’ (Elizabeth Silva, 2009, p.333) where the signage and warnings have been removed.

In this ‘naked street’ (Elizabeth Silva, 2009, p.333) movement is fluid and free-flowing, with no user having priority over any other. The space involves users because it is still part of the community: it is a space for social interaction, not merely a means of going from one social situation to another.

Another difference between the two rationales is to do with who controls movement. In the modernist approach, order is imposed by the state. Evidence is gathered by authorities and reviewed through the prism of the modernist theory.

The resulting zones and signage control movement accordingly and this is then standardised to form a set of rules that apply in all situations. Users are not given freedom of expression or allowed individual interpretation, because traffic is seen as an agent of danger and in need of controlling (Elizabeth Silva, 2009, p.331).

The flexible approach, however, uses the state as a facilitator. By not exerting control, the state endows users with common sense and gives them the freedom to choose how best to negotiate the shared space.

This self-governance shows the user as a ‘civilised, disciplined individual’ (Elizabeth Silva, 2009, p.337), and someone who will naturally slow down when encountering a school, perhaps, or when they need to make eye contact to ensure safe passage (Glaskin, cited in Elizabeth Silva, 2009, p.334-5).  In this environment, usage is communally negotiated rather than imposed.

Who is in control?

This begs the question of where responsibility lies for the actions of people using the space. When the state imposes order, individuals are abdicated from any sense of responsibility. This in turns means less thought goes into the actions of users and less sense of the consequences of their actions. In this way, modernism allows a temporary retreat from society, an ability to blame others, to lose concentration. Thus, in a controlled situation, it is possible for loss of control to be more likely.

In the flexible approach, access and egress is only possible through negotiation with fellow users: by using eye contact to signal intent and cooperation to achieve the best result for themselves and others. Users are fully responsible for their actions, which makes them more alert with a greater awareness of danger.

This is borne out by a report on the Drachten experiment, by journalist Max Glaskin: ‘…there is no doubt that my concentration levels were higher than if I were simply obeying a green or red traffic light’ (cited in Elizabeth Silva, 2009, p.334-5). Thus, counter-intuitively, this lessening of control can create a greater sense of responsibility and a safer environment (Elizabeth Silva, 2009, p.340).

The Modern Workplace

These differing approaches can be seen in much of modern life, but it is interesting to look at them in reference to the modern workplace.

The industrial-age model of work is very much about the business owner taking control and creating clearly defined working conditions. Specific tasks are undertaken by specific people in specific places at specific times.

Systems and processes are standardised and dictated, so there is no sense of responsibility. Work success is measured on adherence to the system (input) rather than the results achieved (output), because only by working to the preset pattern will you produce the number of widgets in an hour that it has been ordained you will produce.

While the modernist and flexible approaches to traffic control both have the same goal, the reduction of accidents and deaths, the modernist theory is arguably less interested in the goal.

There is an inherent assumption that, if results are not what is expected, rather than reviewing the system, the cause will be because people are not adhering to the system. So the engagement and collaboration and even, to some extent, the welfare of road users is secondary to the idea that the system must be followed.

This is very much true of many modern businesses who refuse to look at how they might change their operation and assume that anything that goes wrong is because systems and processes are not being followed.

With the flexible approach, Monderman, while sharing the same goal, was also interested in how it was achieved. Not for him the isolation and lack of ownership of tightly controlled zones and systems. What he saw was an opportunity for interaction, engagement and shared responsibility that relies on the community working together.

This is pretty much how we had worked for several thousand years, before the industrial revolution. And it is a way of working towards which many would like to move.

The modern workplace should reflect a flexible approach, where choice and freedom to act is by negotiation with others in the community; where trust is built and motivation and endeavour are self-created rather than imposed; where output is what is measured rather than input.

What would you prefer?

It is interesting to look at these two approaches and see how they relate to the modern dilemma around the workplace.

Buchanan’s approach is structured and imposed while Monderman’s approach is flexible, fluid and self-governing. This latter approach may offer new ways of looking at our current traffic problems to create innovative solutions.

It is certainly relevant to the workplace evolution that is currently happening in many organisations across the country right now and continuing to change the way we work.

I know what I would prefer.



Silva, E. (2009) ‘Making Social Order’, in Taylor, S., Hinchcliffe, S., Clarke, J. and Bromley, S. (eds) Making Social Lives, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Shared Space: Reconciling people, places and traffic, 2014. Ben Hamilton Baillie. [online] Available here.

Traffic in Towns: A Retrospective, 2013, Colin Buchanan. [online] Available here.

Modernism, 2014. Wikipedia. [online] Available here.