Order emerges in unexpected places

by Russ Roberts on March 2, 2007

in Complexity & Emergence

European cities are cutting back on traffic signs in order to let order emerge. (HT: August from a comment here at the Cafe):

European traffic planners are dreaming of streets free of rules and
directives. They want drivers and pedestrians to interact in a free and
humane way, as brethren — by means of friendly gestures, nods of the
head and eye contact, without the harassment of prohibitions,
restrictions and warning signs.

And later on in the article:

But one German borough is already daring to take the step into
lawlessness. The town of Bohmte in Lower Saxony has 13,500 inhabitants.
It’s traversed by a country road and a main road. Cars approach
speedily, delivery trucks stop to unload their cargo and pedestrians
scurry by on elevated sidewalks.

The road will be re-furbished in early 2007, using EU funds. "The
sidewalks are going to go, and the asphalt too. Everything will be
covered in cobblestones," Klaus Goedejohann, the mayor, explains.
"We’re getting rid of the division between cars and pedestrians."

The plans derive inspiration and motivation from a large-scale
experiment in the town of Drachten in the Netherlands, which has 45,000
inhabitants. There, cars have already been driving over red natural
stone for years. Cyclists dutifully raise their arm when they want to
make a turn, and drivers communicate by hand signs, nods and waving.

"More than half of our signs have already been scrapped," says
traffic planner Koop Kerkstra. "Only two out of our original 18 traffic
light crossings are left, and we’ve converted them to roundabouts." Now
traffic is regulated by only two rules in Drachten: "Yield to the
right" and "Get in someone’s way and you’ll be towed."

Strange as it may seem, the number of accidents has declined dramatically.

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Kent Gatewood March 2, 2007 at 12:14 pm

It didn't look comfortable for women in spikes to walk on cobblestones in downtown Oklahoma City. Could be wrong though.

eddie March 2, 2007 at 12:20 pm

I recently visited Rome and was struck by how chaotic traffic is there compared to America – lanes were non-existent or ignored, many places had no signals or signs, etc. It seemed to work very well, though. I instantly thought of Cafe Hayek, of course. :)

I'm not surprised that traffic accidents might be reduced by such a system. The system only works at all if almost everyone is paying very close attention to everything around them. I do wonder, however, about the efficiency of such a system in terms of flow rates and capacity. It may well be that highly structured traffic systems with lanes, signs, and signals can accomodate much larger numbers of vehicles and much higher speeds. If so, the trade-offs may not be worth it.

colson March 2, 2007 at 12:20 pm

This is one I've been curious about for quite some time. Why do we need so many traffic rules? Is speeding truly a concern at 3:45am when I'm on my way to work and I'm the only car within a half-mile moving radius? Would the natural inclinations of those approaching an intersection with flashing yellow lights have a balancing effect in periods where traffic is heavier? It would be an interesting study of human choices to say the least.

A second point or item – do lines on pavement and street signs for speed limits add to the potential for road rage? We do seem to take ownership of space on the street and I get steamed when someone is riding my tail. But it was a culture shock to see driving in the Philippines (Makati). Most people ignored the street lines and signs. Where it was a four lane street, there would be five cars wide. A two lane street emptying into a four-lane street would often have four cars wide turning into the four lane street. Sure, cars were dented, dinged and some were questionably still on the road – but everything seemed to come with a grain of salt. You cut in where you need to because someone else will cut you off -it was "understood". Sure, people honked a horn quite a bit but it was almost surreal. It was hard to really figure out why it worked when all things seemed to point to it not working by using conventional logic. The only thing people seemed to obey were the traffic lights.

dj superflat March 2, 2007 at 12:59 pm

i had a similar reaction to traffic in katmandu — much more organic, like a river, you didn't cross the street so much as wade in. on a hunch, i'm willing to bet it's a speed vs. safety trade off (you get higher flow rates with "orderly" driving, but more accidents of a serious nature than if you let drivers just sort it all out as they go).

Eric H March 2, 2007 at 1:18 pm

This is something that has interested my wife and I for a while. If you stop overbuilding streets, cities "magically" become more livable, in every sense of the word. It seems ironic – but then remember who it is that manages streets (hint – it ain't private enterprise).

Sameer March 2, 2007 at 2:35 pm

So I'm intrigued by the fact that none of the articles about this subject talk about the change's impact on the ability of these new roads to move people. Sure, it may be safer, but if it means it takes you an hour to cross town instead of just fifteen minutes, is it really worth it?

I am skeptical of the claim that cities become more livable if the streets are narrow. Sure, they look nicer, but how livable it is when it takes an 30 minutes to drive a few blocks to the supermarket?

mith March 2, 2007 at 3:14 pm

"The system only works at all if almost everyone is paying very close attention to everything around them. I do wonder, however, about the efficiency of such a system in terms of flow rates and capacity."

Systems with lots of rules are only efficient when everyone using the system agrees to follow the rules. Any time someone goes through a red light and smashes into traffic coming the other way, or someone has to tap their brakes to avoid hitting someone that's going slower than the group, all of that efficiency disappears.

I think part of the reason systems with fewer rules work is because in systems with more rules, everyone expects everyone else to follow the rules. So it's a shock when someone goes through a red light, or drives slower than the speed limit, or a pedestrian jumps out in front of an oncoming vehicle. In systems with fewer rules, you have to pay more attention to what everyone else is doing, and you don't naturally assume that everyone is going to follow the rules.

Chris O'Leary March 2, 2007 at 3:59 pm

When I spent a week in the south of France, I fell in love with the rotaries. What they eliminated was the phenomenon of sitting at a red light with no other cars around in the middle of the night.

eddie March 2, 2007 at 4:25 pm

I should also mention that on that same trip I also visited Egypt. The traffic there, like in Rome, followed very few rules… but unlike in Rome the traffic was a horrible mess. In Egypt traffic was slow-moving and gridlocked whereas in Rome traffic seemed chaotic but flowed smoothly. I'm sure my observations were anecdotal at best, but perhaps in Rome drivers were more willing to respect each other's "property" of being in a particular place, while in Egypt drivers attempted to get where they wanted to go without regard to who may already be there.

Perhaps not all order that arises spontaneously is equally orderly.

Adam March 2, 2007 at 8:56 pm

Eddie: remember that Cairo is one of the most unbelievably congested places on Earth. I've been to Egypt many times and Rome twice and while Rome is chaotic, it's not very dense (relatively). Cairo is so crowded that it needs a second floor. Desperately. I don't think traffic signs (that were obeyed) would make a lick of difference under those conditions.

Russell Nelson March 3, 2007 at 9:11 am

The reason people beep their horns in a system without lanes is to assert a claim on somebody's blind spot.

True_Liberal March 3, 2007 at 11:15 am

Chaotic traffic results from living on the south side when your employment is on the north side of town. Sam McGee from Tennessee ventured to the Yukon, then complained of the cold, according to poet Robert W. Service.

It's easy enough to solve the traffic problem on an individual level, but we somehow would rather blame "the system".

Jody March 3, 2007 at 6:47 pm

What they eliminated was the phenomenon of sitting at a red light with no other cars around in the middle of the night.

Many a time, I've come to a red light with no other cars around. But I don't understand this sitting around thing you describe…

colson March 5, 2007 at 11:05 pm


The worst are the turn arrows with red lights. i usually take it as a cautionary note before proceeding at 3am

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