Aigle train station (Switzerland), on a winter Saturday morning: dozens of skiers get out of the train connecting Geneva to the Swiss Alps. Most of them will take the narrow gauge railway whose track crosses the station square before going through the small city and climbing the steep slopes of the surrounding snow-covered mountains.
The station square is crowded with travellers, buses, taxis and private cars. On its North side, 2 driving instructors are smoking a cigarette next to their brand new cars, waiting for their clients.
A blue asphalt zone covers a large area of the square. Part of the zone has wide light grey parallel stripes on it. White paint delimits 12 parking spaces and highlights the railway track. A few cars are meticulously parked between the grey stripes in the center of the blue zone.
While waiting for my friends who will pick me up with their black 4-wheel drive estate car, questions flood my mind:
- Is the blue asphalt zone purely decorative or does it define an area where special rules apply to vehicles and pedestrians (i.e. a pedestrian precinct, a 30 km/h zone) ?
- Which area do the 5 no stopping signs painted in the blue zone apply to? the whole blue zone, the entire striped area or the spaces between 2 grey stripes within which the signs are painted?
- Do the grey stripes delimit parking spaces as some drivers seem to believe? If they do, why are 4 no stopping signs painted between these stripes? why are these stripes much larger than the conventional lines used to mark parking spaces? and why are these stripes so close to the railway track (which is probably the most insecure place to put parking spaces in the zone)?
If the station square were well designed, all these questions would have an immediate and clear answer. In fact the question and answer process would have even been partly subconscious. The answers would have come from the design itself and my knowledge (based on the traffic code and similar previous experiences). But neither the station square's design itself - it is not self-explanatory - nor my knowledge - I've never seen anything like this elsewhere - are of any help here. Even worse: the affordance* of the striped layout encourages drivers to believe that it is there to delimit parking spaces despite the no stopping signs.
As I couldn't figure it out myself, I called the city police department to get first hand information. The person on the other end of the line told me that the blue zone was purely decorative and that no special rules applied. He was a little confused about the no stopping signs and didn't know if they applied to the whole blue area or not. His conclusion was "Nobody can make head nor tail of it, it really isn't great!".
In his book "The design of everyday things", Donald A. Norman defines the word affordance which "refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used."