I’ve had the strangest experience returning to my hometown Springfield Massachusetts. I have not been back here for more than a couple of days at a time usually around the holidays. However this trip I settled in for a full three weeks, and have noticed some odd behaviors emerging in the general population.
1) people cross the street anywhere, anytime. There seems to little to no fear of cars, and sometimes mothers are pushing baby carriages directly into four-lane traffic. Rarely are crosswalks used, and crossing lights used even less.
2) many people are choosing not to use sidewalks, but instead are walking in the roads, sometimes in the middle
3) drivers no longer pay attention to lines on the road; they have become meaningless
And this got me thinking about design, behaviors and culture. The design of the roads, traffics and sidewalks work because culture and behaviors cooperate with the design elements to make the whole system flow. Without culture and behaviors, the design elements are simply silly remnants of the past. I pushed the crossing light button to cross a major thoroughfare, and was laughed at by two pedestrians who darted through the traffic. I felt really silly.
When I visited Vietnam a few years ago, I marveled at the organic-ness of city traffic. Thousands of mopeds, car and pedestrians zoomed and darted in SEEMING chaos. More time there revealed the elegance of the known behaviors. There are social contracts that safely move a pedestrian across the street. If you don’t know the norm, you can get hurt and hurt others. In fact, my partner did just that by hesitating while walking across the road.
Back to Springfield: there seems to be two different cultural and behavioral systems in clash, and all with the same design elements – the old rules-based and new free-flow. The real danger is that different operating systems are driving these different systems. I follow the traffic lines. I am less concerned that others will “disregard” them. I am surprised when I almost crash.
And now back to design: how many systems in the environments that we live and work are in flux or outdated? How many designs are simply relics that make less sense in today’s world? How can we ensure that we are paying attention to and design for these changes? For surely, culture and behaviors are not static.
I know a lot of pissed off drivers and walkers in Springfield Massachusetts. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know the clash between the different operating systems is really dangerous. People are pissed. People are dying.