“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Do not resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
According to a recent survey there are 6,451,909 people living in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and every one of them has a motor scooter – or so it would seem. It is their pleasure between 5 and 9 in the morning and 5 and 9 at night to ride their scooters around the city in a solid, unbroken, constantly moving stream of traffic without benefit of traffic lights, traffic cops, road signs or rules. At junctions, of which there are many, they do not slow down, stop or give way. The streams of traffic simple merge into each other. No matter what direction they are coming from, north, south, east or west, the rivers of traffic pass through each other and continue on their way. It is a motorised version of the ancient philosophy of Taoism – “the Way” – originally proposed around 600BC by the Chinese sage Lao Tzu. Taoism promotes ‘wu-wei’ (action from non-action) through simplicity, spontaneity and detachment. It teaches that by allowing things to happen, by yielding to the will of the universe, goals can be achieved without effort.
Of course pedestrians have to cope with the tsunami of traffic as well but fortunately Taoism has advice for them in some simple instructions:-
- Step out into the traffic with a glad heart
- Do not worry.
- Do not stop.
- Do not turn back
- Do not change direction
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
The whole principle can be distilled down into an instruction that we Brits know well:- ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Although there may be hundreds of scooters, plus cars, rickshaws, lorries and buses for texture heading towards you, by adopting these simple principles a path will miraculously appear and before you know it you are safely on the distant shore.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Having recently experienced this miracle myself I wondered if spiritual road safety would work in this country. We could start by getting rid of the traffic lights at the St Margarets roundabout, taking down the footbridge over the A316 and painting out the zebra crossing by the station. For an expert opinion I approached Stephen Stradling,, Emeritus Professor at the Transport Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University and drummer with the legendary Manchester rock band “Johnny Angel”.
Question 1: How does “Traffic Taoism” work?
By maintaining a constant speed and direction while crossing the road in Hanoi you are making it as easy as possible for the onrushing riders to calculate your trajectory and, with small adjustments, weave their way around you.
The most useful road safety slogan I’ve come across is COAST: Concentration, Observation, Anticipation, Space & Time. A constant course facilitates the riders’ Anticipation – provided, of course, that they are paying attention and are not distracted, nor fatigued by the effort of constant attention – so they have sufficient Space and Time to manoeuvre round you.
But ‘Traffic Tao’ requires you to ‘inhabit’ your troubling carriageway crossing. As the later Japanese sage and poet Basho wrote “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home”.
Question 2: Could it work in the UK?
Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman (1945-2008) took out the traffic lights at the centre of the small town of Drachten in northern Netherlands and achieved safety benefits by forcing drivers, riders, cyclists and pedestrians into making eye-contact and ‘negotiating’ their way across the junction, with an eye to each others’ safety,
This experiment informed the current ‘Shared Space’ notion, trialled in Kensington High Street and Exhibition Road in London, Ashford in Kent and elsewhere in the UK.
Both the South East Asian and Western European approaches require trust, but whereas in Hanoi the pedestrian’s trust is in the detachment of ‘non-action’, in the West all road users are pressed to take responsibility for the outcomes of potential ‘traffic conflicts’.
“If I have even just a little sense, I will walk on the main road and my only fear will be of straying from it. Keeping to the main road is easy, but people love to be sidetracked.”
YouTube: Traffic in Hanoi
YouTube: Traffic in Hanoi – Street Level
— from Martyn Day
CREDIT: With grateful thanks to Nguyen Thi Tku Hang
During his many years of research into the psychology of traffic Professor Stradling has come up with some surprising insights. Here are a couple to think about when you decide to leave the car at home and take the train instead..
- It is not just drivers that break the speed limit – cars do too. Each car seems to have its own preferred throttle position, which guides the driver’s foot to where it feels comfy. For reasons best known to the manufacturers, this in-built cruising speed is often well over 70 mph. To drive slower than this default speed the driver has to actively intercede. Less conscientious drivers are happy to sit back and let the car get on with it.
- Incidents on motorways cause slowdowns and hold ups – and these can result in ‘ghost effects’ which may last for some time after the event. If you are driving along a motorway and suddenly run into a traffic build up that has no apparent cause then you may have run into the ‘ghost’ of an incident or accident that may have happened miles away and hours earlier.