Spontaneous order on the road

by on August 11, 2010 at 7:30 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

Here’s a video of a small town in Britain that turned its traffic lights off.  Order ensued.

The experiment is not unique. Tom Vanderbilt wrote an excellent piece in The Wilson Quarterly a few years ago on traffic revolutionary Hans Monderman (see also this NYTimes piece) who has redesigned a number of city centers:

At the town center, in a crowded four-way intersection called the Laweiplein, Monderman removed not only the traffic lights but virtually every other traffic control. Instead of a space cluttered with poles, lights, “traffic islands,” and restrictive arrows, Monderman installed a radical kind of roundabout (a “squareabout,” in his words, because it really seemed more a town square than a traditional roundabout), marked only by a raised circle of grass in the middle, several fountains, and some very discreet indicators of the direction of traffic, which were required by law.

As I watched the intricate social ballet that occurred as cars and bikes slowed to enter the circle (pedestrians were meant to cross at crosswalks placed a bit before the intersection), Monderman performed a favorite trick. He walked, backward and with eyes closed, into the Laweiplein. The traffic made its way around him. No one honked, he wasn’t struck. Instead of a binary, mechanistic process–stop, go–the movement of traffic and pedestrians in the circle felt human and organic.

A year after the change, the results of this “extreme makeover” were striking: Not only had congestion decreased in the intersection–buses spent less time waiting to get through, for example–but there were half as many accidents, even though total car traffic was up by a third.

The experiments are interesting in their own right but they are also very good illustrations of spontaneous order; how order is possible without orders.

Hat tip: Dan Klein.

J August 11, 2010 at 7:41 am

Monderman performed a favorite trick. He walked, backward and with eyes closed, into the Laweiplein. The traffic made its way around him. No one honked, he wasn’t struck.

That may not always work.

david August 11, 2010 at 8:00 am

Yeah, this wasn’t spontaneous. Rather it was an improvement in the rules chosen.

Drew August 11, 2010 at 8:12 am

In Nairobi, most of the main roads have traffic circles instead of lights. The traffic is immensely worse due to this, so they are in the process of removing them all.

Sam M August 11, 2010 at 8:43 am

I wonder to what extent we can attribute this to a “regulatory shock.” What I mean is, there are places where there are no traffic rules, and bedlam is the result. Perhaps it works in this case because the drivers are not coming at it from a position of no regulations, but more intense regulations. Therefore, they bring a sense of their own rules to the mix. I can think of another example: I suspect that a “free market” solution would now work in place of, say, smoking bans. A lot of bars and restaurants would remain smoke-free if the bans were lifted, and everybody would have a choice. But the vast majority of those establishments chose NOT to ban smoking prior to the regulation. That is, the market for smoke-free bars seemed not to clear without a… dare I say it… nudge.

Sam M August 11, 2010 at 8:44 am

I wonder to what extent we can attribute this to a “regulatory shock.” What I mean is, there are places where there are no traffic rules, and bedlam is the result. Perhaps it works in this case because the drivers are not coming at it from a position of no regulations, but more intense regulations. Therefore, they bring a sense of their own rules to the mix. I can think of another example: I suspect that a “free market” solution would now work in place of, say, smoking bans. A lot of bars and restaurants would remain smoke-free if the bans were lifted, and everybody would have a choice. But the vast majority of those establishments chose NOT to ban smoking prior to the regulation. That is, the market for smoke-free bars seemed not to clear without a… dare I say it… nudge.

Jay J August 11, 2010 at 8:49 am

I believe spontaneous order is possible. But not everywhere. Try turning the traffic lights off in my hometown of Little Rock, AR. You know when the traffic lights go out on account of electricity loss, everything becomes a 4 way stop? (of course). Even with everyone going straight, people in LR act as if they either don’t know the rules, or don’t care. There’s obliviousness, inconsideration, frustration, and near accidents all around. Of course that’s not a perfect comparison to a situation where everyone knows the traffic lights will be turned off, but I imagine getting people in Little Rock to be orderly without very clear rules would be like herding cats.

Jay J August 11, 2010 at 8:57 am

By “very clear rules” I don’t just mean clear social norms internalized by everyone (or virtually everyone). I mean very clear rules *very clearly and openly signaled* in the nearby environment. I should have been clearer about that.

LoneSnark August 11, 2010 at 9:05 am

In my town when the traffic lights go out the system seems to work exactly the same. Once one way goes, it keeps going. The rule seems to be, whichever path went last has right of way, all else have a stop sign. As such, once there is a break in the traffic, or someone got their nose out, that path would stop and the other way begins going like mad. From a distance, you would never know the lights were out.

citizen August 11, 2010 at 9:34 am

Cairo operates pretty much without any traffic lights, and it’s much busier than any of these small town experiments.

Nate August 11, 2010 at 9:42 am

I live near a pretty busy intersection in DC where an arterial meets another well-used (but non-arterial) street. Most of late Sunday night/early Monday morning, the traffic light was out due to a brownout (bordering on blackout) and all night I heard cars screeching to avoid collisions with cars on the arterial, many of whom weren’t even slowing down at the non-functioning light. This eventually culminated in a pretty nasty accident around dawn, which finally got the power company out fix the power. I think something like this can only work in a situation where people are already forced to drive reasonably carefully prior to implementation.

Kleiton August 11, 2010 at 10:01 am

Just like in India.

Boo-urns August 11, 2010 at 10:29 am

To state the obvious, there are at least two preconditions necessary for this to work:

1) everyone understands what the rules/conventions are. I would guess that in a town with lots of recent immigrants or a more transient town, you might have different outcomes.

2) everyone is not a believer in pure narrow self-interest. I remember hearing about a “prisoner’s dilemma” study where people who had studied Econ or Finance were much more likely to engage in the self-interested behavior than those who had not taken these classes. For example, in areas where U. Chicago theories are generally internalized, I think this little traffic experiment would have been a disaster.

anonymous August 11, 2010 at 10:52 am

Could this be something similar to the Hawthorne effect? Ie, when people know they are being observed as part of an experiment, a change of conditions — of any kind — results in a short-term improvement in performance?

Removal of the traffic lights must have been well-debated and discussed in this small town before they went ahead with it. The inhabitants are therefore aware of taking part in an experiment, so to speak.

matt. August 11, 2010 at 11:15 am

“Nor are shared-space designs appropriate everywhere, like major urban centers, but only in neighborhoods that meet particular criteria.”

seems like a moot point to continue to point out that ‘try this in (insert city here)’ after reading the articles linked. no one states explicitly that this solves all traffic woes.

RM August 11, 2010 at 11:47 am

Too much is being read into this. England has a long history with roundabouts and drivers there know how to use them. There are probably a dozen roundabouts for every light. Put a bump in the middle of the intersection and drivers there immediately know to give way to the car coming from the right.

Spontaneous would have been if you introduced this concept for the first time and overnight drivers knew what to do.

WRT the hand waves, this is also an old British custom. The smallest courtesy between drivers results in a wave.

This video was done by a do-gooder group trying to promote pedestrian safety, which I agree with.

Yancey Ward August 11, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Boo-urns,

Fan of The Simpsons, I see.

lemmy caution August 11, 2010 at 1:19 pm

I am deeply suspicious if these experiments are really scalable. I think these areas are safe because they are different and as such turn off the auto-pilot of the motorists. If such places became the new normal I suspect that it would quickly reach an inferior equilibrium.

I agree. The book “traffic” spent the first half talking about improved safety from Monderman type interventions and the second half talking about how dangerous traffic was in india and china without recognizing that traffic in india and china are Monderman type interventions on a massive scale.

anonymous August 11, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Cultural factors surely come into play: you can hardly expect small-town civility everywhere.

I doubt that this would work in Beijing, where many drivers have already turned off the traffic lights in their own mind (photo).

Dan H. August 11, 2010 at 2:54 pm

“The cars are still following some simple rules, though, so it’s not a complete lack of order.”

Spontaneous order doesn’t imply no rules at all. In fact, it relies on them. The point is that the order arises from the simpler rules, rather than the order being planned.

Take evolution, for example. There are definite rules – there are laws of nature, and there is the encoding of DNA, change through mutation, and implicit rules of population growth around the survivability of genetic mutations. But the ecosystem that arises from those simple rules is exceedingly complex and that complexity is spontaneously generated (and highly optimized).

If there were no rules at all, this spontaneous generation of order could not happen.

In countries where there are no traffic rules at all, you may or may not get spontaneously ordered traffic – it depends on whether there are other implicit rules strong enough to cause ordering.

LoneSnark August 11, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Jay J, a 4-way stop was not possible, as my city is dominated by four lane roads, which means most intersections are eight lane intersections. It is not possible for them to operate as 4-way stops, as there are eight cars at the intersection at any time.

Therefore, our citizenry fell back on simple rules: drive slowly, as there is no right of way; if a stream of cars block your path then stop where you are not blocking the intersection.

But I too suspect this is not a permanent solution. It was less efficient, as vehicles were crossing the intersections at 25mph instead of the posted 45mph. It is also obvious to me that it was a less safe solution, as the left lane of traffic impairs the vision of the right lane of traffic, and so it violates the first law of intersections: it is always the car you did not see coming that crashes into you.

agnostic August 11, 2010 at 4:58 pm

I don’t think anyone who’s been a driver / biker / pedestrian for a few years doubts that order is possible without top-down rules. The question is whether it’s a better order than the one resulting from top-down rules.

The answer isn’t always obvious, especially where individuals may otherwise put out lots of negative externalities in the absence of a top-down enforcer.

A popular approach here is to ask the free market what works. Within any private system of transit — say, fully privatized toll roads or parking lots — are there no traffic lights, speed limits, lane demarcations that are obligatory, arrows mandating or prohibiting flow, etc.? Sure.

The conclusion seems to be that most people are too tempted to be beastly in the transportation world, so some higher power has make and enforce rules to keep them in check, whether that power is public, private, or Ostrom-style.

Tom August 11, 2010 at 7:56 pm

I grew up in Kansas City MO where there were several traffic circles at busy intersections. I always thought they worked great, also on the Country Club Plaza there were no stop signs at the intersections — I used to call them 4 way goes. I never saw a wreck at any of them — about 20 years ago they decided to improve most of those intersections and now it’s much slower to go through them.

I do think it’s scalable but like everyone said people have to get used to what the unwritten rules are.

fluffy August 11, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Parts of Seattle are like this all the time, and it works out pretty well, but it’s restricted to light-traffic residential areas where people are generally being decent to each other. In San Francisco, it’s hard enough getting people to understand what the stop lights mean when they’re WORKING, much less when they’re malfunctioning or disabled entirely.

Shane M August 12, 2010 at 1:08 am

I wonder if many traffic intersections are actually optimized for traffic flow, or if black swan type events like “that bad accident there 3 years ago” determine traffic signaling. I’ve seen over 10 new traffic lights go up in the past 10 yrs on my normal route to work, and I can’t honestly say only 1 of those lights has helped traffic flow. (The conversion of an overwhelmed 4 way stop to lights) Traffic lights consistently seem to slow things down/increase commute times. So is it really a matter of a vocal proponent for a light going to a meeting and asking for one? Or often I also think businesses seem to like intersections placed in front of their establishments and they are vocal proponents. (It slows everybody down alot, but it makes it much easier for people to come in and buy a burger or get gas or …) My $0.02. Very interesting post though.

DPR August 13, 2010 at 11:53 pm

When I served in Kosovo, there were no traffic lights or signs. People developed a spontaneous and stable equilibrium at intersections. The problem is that traffic moved more slowly than through a controlled intersection. When traffic lights in the US fail, the same equilibrium ensues.

There’s no magic of Green=go, Red=stop. If we landed you on a planet that was identical to Earth except traffic lights were different colors, horizontal, and in an unusual order, it would take you little time to figure it out. Then again, I always enjoyed that scene in Starman:

“Red means stop. Green means go. Yellow means go real fast.”

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