Hans Monderman, 1947 - 2008. In memoriam

By Eric Britton
Published January 08, 2008

I learned this morning of the sad news that our dear friend and colleague Hans Monderman has passed away. It is a great loss.

Hans was an exceptionally creative, energetic and original thinker and doer, right up the middle of the New Mobility Agenda at its best. His specialty was not to write lots of fat reports or go to conferences, but rather to get out onto the street and show people and policy makers what can be done if we apply our minds to it.

His approach has been called "Designing for Negotiation", which he in his usual modesty admitted works better in some places than others. At busy urban intersections with slow traffic, he found that it is often safer and more effective to get road users to focus on looking at one another instead of traffic control devices.

A profile of Monderman that appeared in the New York Times on his work in 2005 started with the following, which I share with you here, as a good lead-in to his original approach:

"I want to take you on a walk," said Hans Monderman, abruptly stopping his car and striding - hatless, and nearly hairless - into the freezing rain. Like a naturalist conducting a tour of the jungle, he led the way to a busy intersection in the center of town, where several odd things immediately became clear. Not only was it virtually naked, stripped of all lights, signs and road markings, but there was no division between road and sidewalk. It was, basically, a bare brick square.

But in spite of the apparently anarchical layout, the traffic, a steady stream of trucks, cars, buses, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians, moved along fluidly and easily, as if directed by an invisible conductor. When Monderman, a traffic engineer and the intersection's proud designer, deliberately failed to check for oncoming traffic before crossing the street, the drivers slowed for him. No one honked or shouted rude words out the window.

"Who has the right of way?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.

We were lucky to know about and benefit from Hans' work over the years and when I learned that health was starting to fail in 2004, I took the initiative of nominating him for the 2005 Word Technology Environment Award and then putting the full force of our international network behind his nomination.

It worked and brought him to the award ceremonies in San Francisco, where he thrilled the audience with a lively acceptance speech that outlined his original ideas and approaches. For many there, this was the first time they had ever heard about anything like that.

To learn more about his contributions, a good place to start is his Wikipedia entry, and for a shot at how it works on the street have a look at the joyful little film that Robert Stussi turned on the occasion of a visit, title "Unexpected interview in Groningen: A Homage to Hans Monderman.

Hans wrote me a few lines just last Tuesday reacting to a little brainstorm on a concept I call "slowth" in part derived from his work - with cautiously optimistic comments that the sharing space approach is taking hold. His note closes with the words: "I attach two pieces of text I found very challenging." Which I now share with you:

I am honored to dedicate the work of the New Mobility Agenda over 2008 to the memory of Hans Monderman. We shall miss him greatly.

Eric Britton was the founder of EcoPlan in 1966, formed to create an effective forum of international collaboration and independent counsel on issues regarding the management of technology as it affects people in their daily lives. In recent years he has turned his attention to sustainability, land use and urban planning, particularly in response to the challenges of climate change.

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By Rob Eke, Australia (anonymous) | Posted January 08, 2008 at 22:38:58

A sad loss, Hans delivered great commonsense and a fresh perspective to age old problems, he reminded us we can achieve much by simplicity and using our brains. We gained much from Hans and his contribution to our planet and our lives. Let's keep his momentum going, be active, be logical, and never give up. Thank you Hans, you are always in our thoughts.
Rob Eke, Melbourne Australia
Co-convenor, Wheels of Justice Cycling Advocacy

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