Garett Jones  

Town Without Traffic Lights II

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Fiduciary Excuses... Armen Alchian, RIP...
In 2010, Alex wrote:

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

It's 2013.  Here's a video of another small town in Britain, Poynton, that turned its traffic lights off in the heart of town, replacing them with a double roundabout.  More decentralized decisionmaking, better outcomes: 


Compton, a small village in the central England, passed legislation just a few weeks ago "removing kerbs and signage and giving priority to all road users - both pedestrians and motorists".  Compton was inspired by nearby Poynton's success.   

The concept, "giving priority to all road users", is at the heart of Martin Cassini's project, Equality Streets.  From an essay he wrote for the BBC: 

The unseen spanner in the works [of current traffic rules] is the idea of main road priority. It was introduced in about 1929...Main road priority licenses main road traffic to plough on regardless of who was there first, including side road traffic and people on foot waiting to cross....

So what did they do to solve the problem of priority to enable us to cross the road in relative safety? They put up traffic lights, so they make us "stop to avoid the inconvenience of slowing down", to quote traffic writer Kenneth Todd.

Stopping traffic is an obvious planner's solution; trusting drivers to make the right decisions requires a belief in the wisdom of individual decisionmaking. An essay at insurer Allianz's site on the reformist "Shared Space" approach closes this way:

Not that it is anything new, as an old film of a trolley ride through San Francisco in 1905 shows; Shared Space is simply a return to the streets of old.

Coda: Britain's many roundabouts are already a massive form of decentralized decisionmaking.  The Griswolds nonwithstanding, we could use quite a few more roundabouts stateside. 

Update: Cassini critiques roundabouts in the comment section of this post. 

Comments and Sharing


CATEGORIES: Regulation



COMMENTS (28 to date)
Alex Godofsky writes:

No. Just no.

Stopping traffic is an obvious planner's solution; trusting drivers to make the right decisions requires a belief in the wisdom of individual decisionmaking.

Seriously? You think we don't have ample evidence against the wisdom of drivers?

Roger writes:

I've been to some small towns in France that have way too many of these traffic circles. They are a great convention, but can be abused in excess. In heavy traffic areas or times, some roads are simply to narrow/congested to support endless traffic circles.

Martin Cassini writes:

Roundabouts are an advance on signal control, but because they give priority to the right (in the UK) or the left (US), they can produce a "need" for traffic lights - to break the unbroken streams of priority traffic so others can enter. Also they gobble up more land. In stimulating empathy and allowing infinite filtering opportunities (based on a supremely fair first-come, first-served basis), Equality seems to me the best of all worlds.

Shane L writes:

Well I have no particular problem with roundabouts - here in Ireland the roads are littered with them - but one point to add:

"...trusting drivers to make the right decisions requires a belief in the wisdom of individual decisionmaking."

But is this a sensible thing to believe? Coming to a roundabout I often tense up to prepare for the often difficult task of judging a complex flow of unpredictable traffic for opportunities to join. Scores of individual drivers are making scores of decisions with little room for error, and of course many do make mistakes. Including me - I was honked at recently for butting into a roundabout when I should have held back: a split-second decision turned out foolish.

So it would be good to see the numbers for traffic accidents in systems with more roundabouts versus systems with more traffic lights.

That said, the point is taken, and I'm grateful that I don't have to wait at a red light when traffic is very light, for example.

a pretty libertarian guy writes:

Shane brings up the most important point--roundabouts are a huge source of anxiety to drivers. I've driven through them in both the US and the UK (they were particularly nerve wracking for me in the UK, since all my driving habits had me wanting to turn in the wrong direction), and they make me very nervous. Even if they are more "efficient," I am against them. Peace of mind may not count as an economic good, but I value it in my daily life, and roundabouts are an assault on that peace.

RPLong writes:

It seems to me that the previous commenters are missing the point.

To be sure, traffic lights definitely produce traffic that is better-controlled. What I think Prof. Jones is getting at is that when these controls are eliminated, we don't actually observe the mass confusion and potential carnage that was worrying us. This suggests our worries are off-base or perhaps over-blown.

ColoComment writes:

Fort Collins, Colorado, recently installed a roundabout at an intersection that had previously been a 4-way stop. Traffic volume had increased to an excessive level when a residential / commercial area was built up nearby and the connecting road improved.

Once familiar* with the protocols of slow and continuous movement through the roundabout, traffic efficiency has improved measurably, and accident rates have decreased.

In the book, Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt, there is a very nice exploration of why taking away drivers' reliance on signs and traffic lights increases drivers' attention.

http://amzn.com/0307277194

* I did witness one elderly woman driver enter the roundabout in a clockwise direction (rather than counterclockwise) to make a left turn. However, because the speed of the traffic all around the roundabout was so slow, there was no problem accommodating the poor woman. Car horns did sound, however, probably scaring her out of her wits (however much of her wits she may have had left.)

Taras writes:

Perhaps people are supposed to feel the anxiety of an occasional roundabout. Big SUVs, trucks, and traffic lights lull people into a safety that really does not exist. Driving is a dangerous activity. IIRC left turns at stop lights and merging into highways are the most dangerous parts.

Brian writes:

I don't like Roundabouts in high traffic areas because no-one seems to know how to use them and the higher volume street gets backed up more than a traffic light would cause. However for two lane roads, roundabouts are better than a traffic light any day.

Justin writes:

I suspect that when accidents do occur, intersections with roundabouts are much less likely to result in fatalities because a reduction of the driver's speed is in his own self interest (lest he plow into the circle). A mistake is a fender bender. Contrast that to someone trying to make it through a light that just turned red. I'd trade a little more anxiety for less t-bone fatalities any day.

Curmudgeon writes:

We French people are supposed to cherish State and local regulations, so we should love traffic lights. But we have adopted the roundabout enthusiastically. It is even said that we may be the world leader. So much so that, as Roger points out, there are places where roundabouts are clearly in excess. They tend to be a signal saying "Our mayor cares for you". Our roundabouts are often centrally adorned with various works of art, some pleasing, others ridiculous or depressing. There are blogs dedicated to the thin, like this one:
http://trobenet.centerblog.net/rub-oeuvre-art-.html

Neil writes:

a pretty libertarian guy writes "roundabouts are a huge source of anxiety to drivers." You sound like you want to be told how to think and behave rather a lot for a libertarian!

Anxiety is why roundabouts work. A driver approaching a green traffic light just ignores other road users, puts his foot down and carries on regardless. A driver approaching the roundabouts in Poynton has to worry about schoolkids, wheelchair users, mums with prams, cyclists, blind people, etc., and just has to slow down and take his turn. A bit of anxiety stops accidents.

I live near a major junction in South London with a 4-lane traffic light junction just like the one in Poynton. The electricity to the lights occasionally goes out, and everyone behaves themselves and takes turns, like a four-way stop junction. Traffic always goes more smoothly on these days

Robert Easton writes:

A roundabout is not "decentralized decision making". There are clear rules about who has priority and how one should proceed around the roundabout. All drivers are expected to follow them.

John Leyden writes:

Well, this opens a pretty big can of worms.

Shane L from Ireland says he dislikes roundabouts because he "often tense[s] up when approaching a roundabout". How does this make road safety worse?

'a pretty libertarian guy' quotes Shane and goes on to say some remarkably un-libertarian things, as Neil points out. But he(APLG) too is at a loss to say why it is more dangerous. It's more a matter of him liking freedom and hating responsibility.

It's perhaps important to note that the Poynton system has TWO roundabouts where apparently one would do. This is the result of careful data gathering and simulation, something that perhaps has been lacking in the French adoption of roundabouts. Notice also how drivers ignore the so-called roundabouts in Poynton when they can get away with it.

Could it be that the debate between economic freedom and state control could take place on the roads? I think I know who would win.

Just because this works in (what appears to be) Mrs. Miniver's England, doesn't mean it will work everywhere.

Anyone ever drive a car in Spain?

mickey writes:

I have never encountered a roundabout and I certainly hate waiting at a light with no traffic at all. But I wonder how 18-wheelers make out with roundabouts?

Kevin Monk writes:

Check out 'The Magic Roundabout' in Swindon.
The Magic Roundabout
5 mini roundabouts around a larger anti-clockwise (as we say in the UK) that's against the standard clockwise convention. I've driven around it. It's great for two reasons; 1 - it has a hospital off one spur for when you have your accident and 2 - it allows you to exit Swindon quickly which is great because it's a hell hole.

awp writes:

I want to back up neil.

Reduced control/instruction is thought to be safer precisely because it makes you nervous. You use your judgement and senses instead of blindly following the perceived all clear.

Chris writes:

I love traffic circles (or roundabouts... whatever). When I was driving in France, I could go around the circle a couple of times, giving me a chance to read the french signs so I could figure out which way to go!

One intersection near me was very frustrating and kept having problems with the lights. They converted it to all way stop and traffic delays and frustrations disappeared. A circle there would be an even better improvement.

There are many other intersections in my local city that could readily turned into traffic circles and greatly improve traffic flow. Unfortunately there are many people here who are adamantly opposed to them. They don't seem to really understand them.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

In Third World there is no contest. You need traffic lights (manned by traffic police) to have any semblance of order.
Otherwise, vehicles would clog each other to standstill.
This is no fancy talk but can be observed so any day in any big Third World city. No order without a policemen or two, not even at a traffic light.

stuhlmann writes:

I live in Germany, and here over the last ten years or so, I have seen many traffic lights replaced with traffic circles - with no increase in space used. Overall I think they work very well.

On a related matter of traffic control, in residential neighborhoods here, most intersections have no stop or yield signs at all. You simply yield to any traffic (cars, trucks, mopeds, or bicycles) coming from your right. It doesn't matter who got to the intersection first. If there is an accident, and the other guy came from your right, then you were wrong. I bring this up because I recently returned from visiting my parents, who live in the same, quiet, central Illinois suburb that I grew up in. Most intersections there have stop signs, often 4-way stops signs. It is extremely frustrating to drive through the neighborhood, wasting time and gas with all those stops.

Tracy W writes:

I've been to Hanoi, and there was order, despite no one obeying traffic signs, and no policemen. However, my husband was there for 2 months and saw two accidents (I saw one), which was more than we'd expect to see in New Zealand in a similar time frame.

In Lower Hutt and Wellington, where I learnt to drive, roundabouts are common, but also so are traffic lights. The problem with roundabouts is indeed a continuous line of people going in one direction, stopping other directions from getting onto the roundabout.

Just to back up what awp and neil say, my understanding is that over-confidence is a common cause of accidents (and I can certainly think of plenty of incidents in my own past that support that!)

Floccina writes:
we don't actually observe the mass confusion and potential carnage that was worrying us. This suggests our worries are off-base or perhaps over-blown.

Great point. It shows us that a form of crowding out exists. After some time of Government doing something we think that without Government it will not get done but it usually will. Consider the work of Elinor Ostrom. It is difficult to imagine what would happen if Government eased out of support the elderly or schooling children but I doubt that it would result mas homelessness in the elderly or mass illiteracy that most people would expect. I would expect the the rates of both to rise but by a small amount.

db writes:

Another example of this might be Rochester, PA, which in the last two years replaced an extremely cumbersome 10-way (five roads) intersection with an oval roundabout. It was common to wait at this intersection for many minutes at a time (I frequently measured 5+ minute waits years ago), but the introduction of the roundabout and devolving the traffic flow decisions to individual drivers has definitely and drastically improved the efficiency of this intersection.

Liam McDonald writes:

I think a bunch of people are missing the point. Roundabouts are supposed to give you anxiety! That way you perk up, pay attention and drive carefully instead of drifting into complacency.

I would rather not be hit by a car than let you have "peace of mind".

jdgalt writes:

This notion of "Equality Streets" is nothing more than hatred of drivers, and especially of drivers' quite rightful expectation that the rules of the road should always let them go as fast as safely possible.

This pathological hatred, like anti-sexual prudishness, is usually nothing more than "sour grapes" on the part of people who aren't getting the benefit of that higher speed and thus want to unjustly deprive those who are.

The freedom movement needs to reject all such movements and the persons who join them.

I have no problem with reasonable traffic safety laws, but the laws were stricter than is reasonable 50 years ago, and accident rates are plenty low enough already. These new rules amount to acts of war against motorists, and will soon reap the defiance they justify (and maybe the ultimate response suggested by Locke).

Jeremey Arnold writes:

If you want to see a city in the U.S. making roundabouts work, check out Carmel, IN. Seriously, it has to be the US Capital of roundabouts and they've infinitely helped traffic flow.

Andrew Gleadall writes:

I'm not sure Martin Cassini is right: roundabouts don't need traffic lights to break up the traffic arriving at them, all you need to get on to a roundabout is for traffic on the roundabout to want to exit on to your road. If you are joining a busy roundabout from a road that very little traffic on the roundabout wants to use then you can have a very hard time getting on to the roundabout. In this case, traffic lights can help to some extent.

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