Traffic without traffic signals

by Russ Roberts on March 8, 2007

in Complexity & Emergence

In this earlier post, I wrote about the European trend toward removing traffic signals and relying instead on informal methods of communication. How would such a change actually work in practice? Some diligent readers (Romulo Lopez and Jose Andrade) found some extraordinary videos of traffic-signal-free traffic. The short answer is that it works surprisingly well, though it’s not clear whether there are fewer accidents or more accidents and what the net impact is on travel time. What is clear from these videos is that a world of informal communication is dramatically LOUDER as the horn appears to play a crucial role in either communicating or catharsis or both.

Check these out. They have a ballet-like quality that is mesmerizing. In some of the sequences it works so well it almost looks staged. Whether it would work in American culture and with a different mix of cars and motorbikes is hard to say. But this is incredible:


Another Hanoi

Somewhere in Vietnam (at night!)


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Aditya Dash March 8, 2007 at 1:06 am

Noise pollution would definitely increase since the horn is the primary communication tool while driving. Also in India the latest trend is of motorcycles and scooters installing horns that sound like trucks/buses. In the US horns are barely ever used also the driving skills need to improve in order to sustain such a system. From my personal experiences auto accidents have usually happened at traffic signals.

Max March 8, 2007 at 4:20 am

The biggest improvement of signal-free areas, is that drivers are pushed to driver slower. Even with a decrease of 10 km/h, the chance of survival and the amount of injuries in case of an accident is a quarter of the usual amount. Also, you have to be more aware of what is happening around you, which could save the lives of those pedestrians who are dwelling in their own little dream world.

On the horn thing, have you ever been in Spain, Marocco or Italy? They have road signs, but the horn is still a major method to communicate. But since technology improved, what about a volume-adjustable horn?

DS March 8, 2007 at 7:11 am

In any of those clips if you had traffic signals the traffic would be at a stand still and backed up for a mile. And EVERYBODY would be using their horn then as well.

There is really a very simple human principal at work here: It is in nobody's best interest to get in a wreck (are these motorists insured?) speeding isn't against the law, its just too dangerous to yourself to do it, and there is a sort of karmic quality to the whole thing where sometimes you let people in and sometimes others let you in. As long as everybody feels like they come out even in that exchange it can work voluntarily without people getting mad.

raj March 8, 2007 at 8:07 am

I'm from India (currently living in Chicago) and let me tell you:

1. There are more accidents in India than in cities like Chicago.

2. And the speed to traffic is much much higher in Chicago – it used to take us close to an hour to drive 15 km (about 10 miles) to go to school in India (and this was in 1991-96 when traffic was much lower)

Sameer March 8, 2007 at 8:36 am

I used to be amazed that there were so few accidents in India, until I realized that it was just a statistical anomaly. A few years back over the course of a few weeks while my parents were visiting they were in three accidents and my cousin was in one accident. It takes hours to just go a few miles, which results in people never leaving their little neighborhoods and you end up with provincialism on a massive scale.

The honking is used not really to communicate but to tell people 'I am here' because they don't have rear-view mirrors and NEVER check their blind spots. So whenever you enter someone's blind spot you have to honk so that they don't sideswipe you. God forbid you might honk at the same time as someone else and then the driver doesn't realize you are there and runs into you.

India traffic is an absolute disaster.

Sherman March 8, 2007 at 8:39 am

Very simple…It WON'T work in American culture. I, for one, DON'T WANT "to interact in a free and humane way, as brethren" with total strangers while on my way to the grocery store. I simply want to get there and get home in the shortest time possible. If on occasion I happen to "interact" with an idiot driver who doesn't believe in red lights, so be it.

Ron March 8, 2007 at 9:00 am

The common factor in all the clips is the slow vehicle speed, the bulk of the vehicles are motorcycles/mopeds which are highly maneuverable, and the high ratio of vehicle size to road width. There is adequate space for accident avoidance maneuvers by the smaller vehicles, note that the trucks and buses drove slowly but did not seem to maneuver to avoid accidents only the smaller vehicle changed direction, i.e. always yield to larger vehicles is usually a good policy even in the U.S.. It seems unlikely that it would work well in the U.S. as the existing vehicle size to road width ratio is too low and most cars are not as maneuverable as mopeds, not to mention the drivers. Although traffic circles do seem to work relatively well with low to moderate traffic volume.

CRC March 8, 2007 at 10:30 am

While I don't think a full-fledged departure from our current system would likely work in the U.S., I do think that a hybrid approach could. For example, I'd like to see the greater use of traffic circles where we currently have signals and you find people sitting at the light too much. This probably happens in suburban setting where traffic is lighter than urban settings. Ultimately, I think that some moves that would essentially force (because of their survival instincts) drivers to be more attentive would end up with net gain in terms of both property and human damage.

Jason March 8, 2007 at 1:43 pm

I don't think that there is any comparison in terms of safety/speed/volume of traffic. I think the U.S. system is clearly superior. What hasn't been weighed is the cost of the U.S. system. My gut feeling is that if the cost is worked out per passenger mile, I would find it reasonable and worth it. Regarding traffic circles, the cost of real estate should be weighed against the cost of a traffic signal. In a commercial area I think the cost for the land would be much higher than even a signal with traffic sensing technology. By the way, I live in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.

Bruce Hall March 8, 2007 at 2:56 pm

The juxtiposition today of this post with "Adaptation, Prices, and Climate Change" reminds me of this:

and this:

But be careful about "roundabouts" which can be "sideswipe alleys" until drivers get used to them.

Calca March 8, 2007 at 6:55 pm

I prefer 4-way stops to either red-lights or round-a-bouts. Red-lights are the worse because of those little cameras mounted on them (the eye of authority….) watching over us. Also, someone should bring along a stopwatch and add up all the seconds when we are sitting at a red-light and nobody is coming from the other side (how is this effective?).

M. Hodak March 8, 2007 at 7:11 pm

In the city, the lights on the avenues enable cars to cruise at 25-40 mph when traffic is modest, which could never happen absent lights. Outside the city, they should set up four-way blinking yellow or four-way blinking red (stop) lights during off hours. Solid red doesn't make sense for most intersections for more than a few hours per day, if that.

han meng March 9, 2007 at 11:35 am

I seem to remember that when I visited Rome in the 1970's, they had no traffic lights at many intersections, and the drivers, mostly in cars, not scooters, were dealing with it well. I couldn't figure how a given stream of traffic knew to stop.

Or have I remembered incorrectly?

tg June 14, 2007 at 11:55 pm

this would never happen in the united states. this country is too conservative too government oriented and too many voices from oppostion would never let it get off the ground.

what those scenes of people going about without the "control" of traffic signals tells a lot about the mentality of those places. it shows the governments allow their society to live daily without it putting itself into the lives of people.

the contrast of seeeing the united states with all its signals and stop signs shows the mentality of this country. it shows how government is involved in even how you live your daily life and go about. they will tell you "well it's for your safety"

my answer would be "well take a look at these videos of other countries, i don't see any accidents". but anyone telling me "it's for my safety" would never even comprehend my overview of this article.

the minds of the people in Hanoi and India and Viet Nam are far more progressed then the great controlling minds in the "free" united states.

what life must be like to live like that. wow!

i'm sure i will get a reply like "well in those countries you could go to jail for spitting on the ground" or something like that. or if you had marijuanna you would be sent to prison for years.

in the united states you could go to jail for talking, beat that!

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