Ban the Traffic Light?

by Gene Callahan

Joseph Fetz’s blog alerted me to an interesting video comparing the same intersection in New Zealand on a day when its traffic light was out versus the next day with the light back in operation. The video certainly illustrates the fact that people’s ability to achieve spontaneous order can be greater than one might suspect at first: many people would guess that the day without the light would be chaotic by comparison to the one with it, but traffic actually seems to flow better with the light off.

But if you click through from Joseph’s blog to the video on YouTube, you will find what the commentators attempt to draw from the video is the conclusion: “We don’t need government.”

That proposition may or may not be true: it is not my intention to address it here. What I wish to note is that the real question the video raises seems to me orthogonal to the issue of how much government should do (with “nothing” being one of the possible answers to that question). The traffic light is a signalling mechanism designed to aid coordination between the drivers traversing the intersection. The video suggests that, at least at that intersection, the light was actually damaging their attempts to coordinate their crossings.

But there is no necessary reason — let us bracket public choice issues for the moment — that a private road owner and a public road owner do not each want to find the right answer to the question, “When is it better to attempt to coordinate around a deliberately planned signal, and when is it not?”

As this video shows, governments in Europe, having found a better way to coordinate passing through the meeting place of several roads than traffic lights, have been happy to implement it. (What a roundabout seems to me to do is to replace the explicit signal of a traffic light with a physical structure that deliberately facilitates the drivers’ spontaneous efforts to coordinate their movements.)

And plenty of private entities create plenty of explicit signaling mechanisms: factories have bells to signal the start and the end of work, private parking lot owners erect stop signs and create one-way “roads,” drummers count their band into a song (“One, two, one-two-three-four”), coaches call out set plays in basketball, and the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer.

Sometimes having an explicit signal to achieve coordination is a good idea, sometimes not: For instance, I have seen it suggested that basketball coaches are far too anxious to run a set play at the end of a close game, and that they would be better off letting the players freelance.

Social scientists can contribute to human flourishing in areas other than deciding the proper scope for government activity. The question of what, if any, activities the government ought to undertake is certainly an important one. But there are other questions, such as, “Whatever entity is providing this road, what is the best way for it to coordinate the activities of the road users, so as to avoid accidents while achieving a good flow of traffic?” It is important to keep a clear view of what question we are asking, and avoid turning every possible question into some version of “But what about the state?”

One thought on “Ban the Traffic Light?

  1. NIT: The signals might have made sense when pedestrians, horses, carriages and cars were adapting to the new invention. At least, that’s what my limited knowledge of their origin suggests: there was too much variation in speed, the different costs of starting and stopping, and horses were often startled. So the introduction of signals might be said to be a problem of horse speed, cognition and training, not one of human cognition and training.

    OTHER EXAMPLE: It’s been very interesting watching ten years of Moscow driving skill (if you can call it that) develop. Originally, ‘cheating’ in roundabouts made them deadly. Russian Machoism, new money, and no oral tradition of driving combined to increase risk to the point where the Moscow equivalent of western fender-benders meant your car was a total loss. But driving there has become a much more civilized activity of late. People are more considerate. They rely on in-car video cams not police reports. Rundabouts flow fairly predictably.

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