Urban[ism] Legend: Traffic Planning

Mathieu Helie at Emergent Urbanism posted a link to a interesting game created at the University of Minnesota. Mathieu explains it better than I can:

The game begins in the Stalinian Central Bureau of Traffic Control, where a wrinkly old man pulls you out of your job at the mail room to come save the traffic control system. You are brought to a space command-like control room and put to work setting traffic lights to stop and go. Meanwhile frustrated drivers stuck in the gridlock you create blare their car horns to get your attention, and if their “frustration level” rises too high you fail out of the level. As the road network gets as complicated as four intersections on a square grid, the traffic becomes completely overwhelming and failure is inevitable, but the old man reassures you that they too have failed anyway.

OK, you’ve played the game? If not, don’t go further until you have.

Now that you’ve played the game and failed to control traffic, compare that top-down system with this amazing video a friend sent to me from Cambodia. You’ve gotta see this:

Man, I love this video! I must have watched it a couple dozen times. I keep expecting a crash, in what to me (only being familiar with top-down planned traffic systems) looks like complete chaos. Yet pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, scooters, rickshaws, and cars all make it to their destinations safely, and probably quicker than in the system in the game above. It must be similar to how capitalism must seem chaotic to people who have always lived in planned economies.

Don’t mistake me as an advocate of a world without traffic signals. I am quite certain that some sort of traffic signaling would likely emerge from a free-market street system. But, my bigger point is that when information is dispersed widely among decision-makers without government monopoly, sustainable solutions emerge from the uncoerced behavior of individual agents over time.

Another article at Infrastructurist discusses the philosophical differences Dutch and American road designs, and gives an example:

A fascinating example is a major–20,000 cars a day!–intersection in the Dutch city of Drachten that used to look a lot a typical American intersection, with lots of bright paint and traffic signals and enormous signs telling you what and what not to do. Traffic planners tore that stuff out and went naked, just putting down a roundabout in the center. The sidewalks even disappeared as distinct structures. Everyone figured it out though. Fatalities at the intersection dropped markedly, as did travel times.

Also read Tom Vanderbilt: News for Traffic Signal Manufacturers

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  • JM

    Yet pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, scooters, rickshaws, and cars all make it to their destinations safely, and probably quicker than in the system in the game above.

    Sorry, but I think the video is somewhat of an illusion. Phnom Penh was probably once a very pedestrian-friendly city with its broad avenues and tighter residential streets. Now it is quite nerve-wracking to walk around with 13 yr olds zooming their dirt bikes up and down the streets with narrow an interest in pedestrian safety. A quick look at a news article from 2008 says that there were 4.8 deaths a day due to traffic fatalities in Cambodia. It is not uncommon to see a motorbike wrecked on the side of the road and a crowd gathered. As the economy there grows and more and more people rely on motorbikes (few can afford cars) you'll definitely see those rates go up as the roads become a fast-moving block of steel.

    Cambodia is not the way to go nor is the “lauded” Indian system (which seems to creep up on more and more urbanism sites). Yes, people will work stuff out on their own if they don't have signals and the like but one must also think of the different way drivers are taught (in developing countries, not at all; in Germany, expensive and thorough education). Actually being concerned about the well-being of other drivers and pedestrians goes a lot further than debating traffic signals.

  • http://marketurbanism.com MarketUrbanism

    Thanks for your thoughts JM.
    Could you expand on what you mean by “illusion”?

    From watching the video, there is no doubt it must be nerve-wracking. I feel tense when watching it. But, I think that concern for self-preservation and safety of others is what makes it work – as you said, “Actually being concerned about the well-being of other drivers and pedestrians goes a lot further than debating traffic signals.” Of course, if there's a cultural breakdown of empathy, it could be a bloody nightmare…

    Now, if an American were to try to drive through there, she would probably be paralyzed by insecurity as everyone who is used to the chaos navigates the intersection. So, I definitely agree that how people are taught plays a big part in how it works, but I think solutions emerge over the long run as habits and customs form.

  • mattofcalifornia

    Where can the game be found?

  • http://marketurbanism.com MarketUrbanism

    Thanks Matt.

    If you hadn't asked, I wouldn't have realized that all the links had disappeared from the post. Wierd, but I fixed it.

    Here's the link to the game: http://www.its.umn.edu/trafficcontrolgame/

  • concernedaboutwinnipeg

    Just because a short video shows several minutes where no accident took place does not mean this is in any way safe. It's an amazing thing to watch, but presenting this as an example of a workable intersection is as disingenuous as the 24 hour news networks presenting one anecdote about someone's personal story as “overwhelming evidence” in support of their argument – as we see so often in the ongoing American health care debates.

  • http://marketurbanism.com MarketUrbanism

    I made no such conclusions. In fact, you are being disingenuous to claim that I am presenting anything in this post as “overwhelming evidence” of anything other than the marvel of spontaneous order.

    I just presented it as an extremely interesting example that really made me rethink my preconceptions. (in fact, I specifically stated that I am not an advocate of intersections without signals.) But now that you mention it, I guess this does appear to be an “example of a workable intersection”. But, I wouldn't make that assertion without more facts.

    I appreciate the time you took to make your comment, but please be more careful when making assertions that I am being disingenuous.

  • JM

    Sorry for the belated reply, didn't see the follow-up in email.

    I'm not sure “illusion” was the best word choice there. I think what I was trying to say fits more with what concernedaboutwinnipeg – amazing to watch but not the full story and not good support for your thesis.

    as you said, “Actually being concerned about the well-being of other drivers and pedestrians goes a lot further than debating traffic signals.” Of course, if there's a cultural breakdown of empathy, (such as in totalitarian regimes) it could be a bloody nightmare…

    That comment is actually directed more towards what I see driving in the rural-urban fringe where I'm currently located. I've only seen worse driving in LA. There's a distinct lack of empathy or consideration of other drivers around here (where a lot of people drive 30 or more minutes on a daily basis) in a place that is quickly evolving from rural (maybe 10-15 yrs ago) to spread-out suburb. Considering in the US you can get a license by passing a test and having a few hours of driving training vs Germany where you must be 18 and I believe it costs several thousand dollars, we should maybe spend more time in making sure we have better drivers on the road (which I alluded to in the last sentence).

    As to an American driving through that intersection, in PP they're usually driven around in a Land Cruiser owned by their NGO by local staff or have a scooter. Walking is a force of will but it can be done as long as you have good timing and isn't a problem outside PP. Same holds true for India though the Indians can stack a family of four or five on a scooter (man driving, five year old between him and handles, seven year old squeezed between him and the wife whose riding pillion and holding the baby) which is frightening to watch. I think the experiment in Germany might work but there is a reason why places like Cambodia and India have high road death tolls. And the US.

    It's good to get these ideas out there as (hopefully) infrastructural changes will be more part of the national dialogue soon though I think it will be limited to more of a local basis.

  • http://marketurbanism.com MarketUrbanism

    Thanks for the clarification.

  • http://abramv.wordpress.com/ Abram VanElswyk

    Actually, failure is not inevitable. I “conquered the grid” (the 'impossible' level) with about 6900 points. But then I studied at a similar Intelligent Transportation Systems Laboratory, the one at Portland State.

    The long-term solution is of course to implement roundabouts as fast as possible. This started with the private sector (the Summerlin community in Las Vegas was the first roundabout-based arterial network) but has now caught on among the public sector, particularly in the northeast.

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  • amm139

    I lived in Cambodia for two years, and let me tell you–people don't make it anywhere quickly or safely, at least within Phnom Penh. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of traffic related deaths in all of Southeast Asia. The video above shows a fairly small intersection. It's not at all representative of the traffic situation there. We spent 2 hours in an SUV on a main thoroughfare one afternoon during rush hour and only went 1.5 miles. Most days I rode on the back of a moto with a local motodop, and I saw my life flash before my eyes more times than I'd like to remember.

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