Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Traffic Signal Paradox

The storm that was Hurricane Ike passed within a couple of hundred miles of us Sunday night, bringing winds that knocked out power for about 130,000 people - including us for about an hour and 15 minutes.

When I drove to work yesterday, the traffic signal at Bigelow Boulevard and Herron Avenue was not working. When I drove home yesterday evening, it still was not working.

The Bigelow/Herron intersection is one of the ugliest in the city. Herron comes down a steep hill to meet Bigelow on one side; on the other side, a fork sends two streets - Herron and Paulowna - down an equally steep hill, creating blind spots. I guess that's why Bigelow has turning lanes there, and why the traffic signal has an add-on for left turns. With no traffic signal, that intersection should have been the locus of a couple of serious smashups.

It wasn't. When I arrived there yesterday evening, I was struck by how well drivers coming from five different directions were negotiating the intersection, taking turns, without a mechanical device telling them what to do.

I have noticed this before, and it invariably makes me wonder, "Do we need traffic lights?"

This time, it reminded me of a recent Wilson Quarterly piece about Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer who thought that we don't. It describes a visit to the village of Makkinga; the last traffic sign as one approaches the village warns that there will be no traffic signs in the village.

Monderman's experiments with eliminating or reducing traffic signage in Makkinga and other places had the counterintuitive result of fewer traffic accidents. Or at least that would be counterintuitive for most people. For Monderman, who died in January, it only made sense: "When you treat people like idiots," by over-informing them and over-monitoring them with traffic signs and signals, "they will behave like idiots," he said.

And apparently, when you don't treat people like idiots - or in the case of a broken traffic signal, when you can't - they behave intelligently. As ugly as the Bigelow/Herron/Paulowna is, if people need to, or are allowed to, figure it out, they do.

Which raises the possibility that in general, the more freedom people have, the more responsibly they will behave.

I would like to visit a place where Monderman's work has taken hold.
Post a Comment