Ruleless: on the self-organisation of road traffic

Juan Freire posts two interesting videos on the subject of self-organising systems. In particular, these videos deal with traffic self-regulation based on crowd behaviour in two very different contexts, India and Russia. He had previously presented similar scenarios in Vietnam.

As Juan points out, what makes self-organising systems so interesting is precisely their unpredictability:

We could attempt to build a new theoretical model based on the “Russian anomaly” (different cultural standards, or the fact that a ruleless crossing in a country where such a thing is quite common is not quite the same thing as a ruleless crossing where such a thing is an exception). Or we could resort to more banal explanations: the vodka effect.

The post recalls a Wired article published a few years ago about Hans Monderman, the traffic engineer whose counter-intuitive logic on traffic regulation is conquering Europe: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.

I have certainly noticed this to be the case in London, where 4,171 people were killed or seriously injured in road accidents in 2004, compared to 346 people in Rome. Everyone knows Rome has a terrible traffic, but – unlike London’s – it tends to self-regulate itself. If you jaywalk in Rome, chances are people will insult you, your mother and your whole ancestry, but you’ll survive. In London, bus drivers wouldn’t even bother touching the brakes, simply because they are ‘in the right’ and you are not on a pedestrian crossing.

Perhaps the explanation lies not, as Juan suggests, in the vodka effect, but in the stark legacy of societies accustomed to self-organise themselves, versus societies that have been living for centuries in highly-centralised socio-political and cultural systems.


5 responses to “Ruleless: on the self-organisation of road traffic

  1. I was just discussing this exact topic with Anne-Marie last night after we were almost run over by a taxi! We commented how, in New York, drivers have no idea what the crazy pedestrians are going to be doing, and so drive expecting people to run in front of them. Indeed, it seems that in 2004 only 258 people (155 of them pedestrians) were killed in trafffic accidents in nyc.

    Compare to, say Beijing, where 1,144 people were killed in the first 8 months of 2004.

    Why is London so high? Hypothesis: a lot of people in London are not from the UK, so are not used to cars driving on the left side of the road and thus more prone to make mistakes.

    Here’s the master chart.

  2. I agree with Tom – traffic patterns in London are v. confusing, esp. for foreigners; rule of thumb? Look in every direction all the time!

    But it is the case that London is excessively rule-based; I have never encountered a car that didn’t screech to a halt at a pedestrian crossing (the one with light globes) if there was someone who looked like they maybe wanted to cross. Nor have I seen any cars run a red light (although the whole on your mark-get set-go! lighting system is a bit nerve wracking). So, like with New York’s subway system, there is a primacy – even pride – in being an ‘insider’ who understands the system, which, if you do, probably makes it very safe.

  3. I have no words…!

    Actually, I do, I am a blogger after all… will post about it immediately!

    PS: can I vote for myself!??!


  4. It has sadly been estimated that most of us will be involved in at least one road traffic accident in our lifetime. Whether you are the driver, passenger, motorcyclist, pedestrian or a victim of a hit and run you will be suffering severe pain and suffering as road traffic accidents are the most common form of personal injury.

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