Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Rules of the Road

I often tell my students about the town of Christianfeld, Denmark. They have done a remarkable thing to improve traffic safety, namely repealing most of the traffic rules. There was a report this morning on NPR noting that another town, Bohmte in Germany, has tried the same thing with great success. In both cases, accidents have fallen markedly, contrary to expectations:

It seems counterintuitive to give drivers less information, by taking away street signs, stop lights and lane markings, to make them drive more safely. It's supposed to help reclaim the streets for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Advocates of this traffic-management philosophy, called Shared Space, say it works. Ben Hamilton-Baillie is a leading Shared Space advocate based in Bristol, England.
"If you're faced with a traffic signal, you don't have to think anymore. Whether you go depends on whether the light is red or green," he says. "In the absence of such things, we're perfectly capable of reading and understanding the situation so that if grandma's in the road ahead of you, you don't run her over."

He compares the Shared Space concept to an ice skating rink. It might look chaotic, but people usually navigate the shared area pretty well. In a traffic context, it means cars, bicyclists and pedestrians are in much closer proximity than they usually are.

I am an economist by training, not a traffic engineer. And yet one of the most important things economists investigate, whether they know it or not (and when they don’t know it it is a tragedy), is how to achieve social cooperation when our interests differ. And these little traffic experiments are striking examples of the difference between order imposed by rules and the spontaneous order achieved through reliance on self-interest.

While the auto itself is a remarkable instrument for human freedom (think of the phrase “the open road,” which is more pregnant with meaning than might be first thought), the way road traffic is governed is arguably not. The road system is governed by rules, and by zero-sum disputes over who is entitled to what. Cars are limited to here, bikers belong over there, and pedestrians are of course expected to stay on the sidewalk. This is a recipe for conflict over entitlements granted by the state. Bikers think there should be more bike lanes and cars should recognize their “right to the road,” car owners think bikers need to be responsible and obey the unwritten codes, and pedestrians think both of the other parties go heedlessly and recklessly fast. Everyone is concerned about maximizing their share of a fixed amount of space, and everyone thinks of themselves as part of a group of fellow travelers of a particular kind, at war with all the other groups for space. And so they try to craft rules to maximize their own room to maneuver and to limit everyone else’s.

In these rule-free experiments, people realize that everyone else has the same individual freedom they do. They impute the same rationality to others that they assume they possess themselves – everyone wants to get where they’re going as fast as possible, but no one wants to die trying. Lo and behold, through pursuit of private interests the public interest is served, as accident rates fall.

I am no believer in central planning, and I certainly wouldn’t want to mandate this rule-free approach in jurisdictions of widely varying sizes and tradeoffs, but there is a lesson in this just the same – not just for traffic, but for society itself. There is nothing about the clash of interests and the need to make best use of a scarce resource that does not also apply to health care, the labor market, or most areas where the state treads so heavily these days.



Blogger Libertarian Jason said...

How timely... I was just arguing with a socialist the other day, and he used traffic rules as justification, per se, for the totalitarian, warmongering, inflationary State.

I may just throw this his way.

11:13 PM  

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