How Libertarianism Can End Bogotá’s Traffic Chaos

The overall number of cars has increased tenfold in Bogotá over the last decade. (Semana)
The overall number of cars has increased tenfold in Bogotá over the last decade. (Semana)

Español“Free-market policies can bring an economic boom,” an urban-design student tells me in a university café. “But that will only put even more cars on the road and worsen Bogotá’s traffic. Why should anyone vote libertarian?”

As the candidate for mayor for the new Libertarian Movement, any debate with urban designers, central planners par excellence, should be completely hostile territory. And yet, under my sleeve, there lies an ace to counter any claim that growth-stifling state regulators always know best, and that the only solution to city traffic is forcing people into crowded buses as if they were pre-weaned Holstein-Friesians.

“As a matter of fact,” I answer, “we libertarians have the most realistic and least costly plan to end traffic jams permanently. Let me explain.”

Before I do, I should note that the student’s question is highly relevant: ending the city’s daily traffic chaos is perhaps the most pressing challenge for the next mayor of Bogotá.

Congestion has increased steadily since former Mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s disastrous introduction of the “pico y placa” measure in 1998. This “congestion mitigation” policy consists of violating car owners’ property rights by prohibiting vehicles with certain license plate numbers from transiting on certain days and times.

As usual, politicians and bureaucrats, hubristically hoping to coerce people into using public transport, failed to take into account market forces. Thanks to decreasing automobile prices and ever-cheaper credit, more and more Bogotá drivers have been able to afford a second vehicle for use when they’re not allowed to drive their main car.

This has led to a huge increase in the overall number of cars, which rose from 587,000 in 2002 to over 1.6 million in 2013. As with cars, so with motorcycles. At present, there are over 400,000 of them registered in Bogotá after a tenfold increase in the last decade. Today, a new motorcycle roars onto the streets every four minutes, often causing or being involved in all types of accidents, from fender-benders to mortal collisions.

Despite the unceasing entry of new vehicles into circulation, the last few mayors have failed to repair the pothole-ridden streets — 68 percent of arterial roads are in bad shape — let alone build any new major roads, and this has also worsened congestion. The average speed of a vehicle traveling in Bogotá has decreased by 9 kilometers per hour in the last decade, from 32 to 23 km/h. But when you’re standing utterly still in a typical Bogotá traffic jam, a mere 20 km/h can seem like light speed aboard Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon.

The question, though, is how Bogota’s next mayor can fulfill the monumental task of improving mobility in the short term without resorting to further draconian, prohibitive measures, which in any case tend to exacerbate the original problem. Counter-intuitive as it may seem to most readers, and especially to potentially tyrannical urban planners, one real and relatively simple solution is the elimination of traffic lights.

“Bonkers!” you might say, “getting rid of traffic lights will only lead to greater chaos.” If that is your riposte, I suggest that you hop over to YouTube and look up Martin Cassini, a British filmmaker and advocate of radical traffic reform.

Cassini has convinced me that traffic lights are “an unnecessary evil,” the product of a state-sponsored system of signal control that is not only inefficient, but also highly dangerous.

Traffic lights, Cassini explains, are “a recipe for danger” since they take our eyes off the road, thus making us break the first rule of transit safety. While green lights encourage speed and “license aggression,” amber lights force the driver approaching at a high speed to decide in a split second whether to come to a complete and sudden halt, or to accelerate and beat the light. Since drivers can easily take the wrong decision, accidents, often fatal ones, inevitably occur. In Central London, for instance, safety audits have shown that at least 44 percent of personal injury accidents in the City of Westminster “occur at traffic lights.”

A skeptical reader might argue that, when traffic lights don’t cause accidents, they at least ease congestion. Cassini begs to differ. He explains that he “saw the light” about traffic lights by coincidence. One day, he “breezed through” a road junction in Cambridge instead of having to wait several minutes for three traffic signals to change, as was usual. Noticing that the traffic lights were out of action, he asked himself if traffic controls could be the actual cause of congestion rather than the solution.

He decided to film junctions where the traffic lights were not in use, and this allowed him to confirm that overall traffic flow increased when traffic signals did not function normally, whereas the same junctions became congested once the traffic lights were repaired. The next step was an official experiment in the coastal town of Portishead in North Somerset, where the local council agreed to shut off several traffic lights at the busy Cabstand junction for four weeks in the fall of 2009.

Cassini’s film of the Portishead experiment shows how removing traffic lights, which caused unnecessary delays of 15 minutes or more on relatively short journeys through the town, instantly turned a congested junction into a zone of free-flowing traffic. Journey times fell by over half and there was absolutely no loss of pedestrian safety. Contrary to some residents’ expectations, removing traffic controls did not lead to a “breakdown of civilization as we know it.” Rather, drivers began to stop naturally when pedestrians walked in front of them.

According to Cassini, the Portishead experiment worked because it put an end to the standardized system of priority, which, by means of traffic signals, imposes unequal rights-of-way. Traffic lights, he explains, give precedence to main road traffic at the expense of the drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians who approach a junction from the arterial roads. By making us stop when it’s safe to go, Cassini argues, traffic lights “defy common sense.”

By removing traffic lights, though, one creates a positive uncertainty in terms of right-of-way, so that drivers who approach a junction on a main road inevitably reduce their speed. The junction itself becomes a “low speed environment” where people interact. As a result, all road users “merge in harmony” as they “filter in turn” depending on who arrived first, but also on the empathy that arises naturally between humans when we are free to cooperate.

This type of road design has been called “shared space,” but Cassini prefers the term “Equality Streets.” When you create an area of “egalitarian space-sharing,” he explains, there emerges “a new hierarchy” with pedestrians at the top. The reason: drivers begin “to see people on foot as fellow road users rather than obstacles in the way of the next light.” He concludes that “if we lived by equality instead of living and dying by (main road) priority, most of our problems on the road would disappear.”

Cassini’s clear success with traffic deregulation at Portishead, a town of a mere 22,000 inhabitants, might be written off as insignificant. When Cassini appeared on Newsnight in 2008, a “transport safety advisor” to the British government assured him and Jeremy Paxman that eliminating traffic lights works only at junctions “with very, very low traffic volumes.”

In 2011, though, shared-space proponents were given a chance to prove that their street design model could work at the Cheshire village of Poynton near Manchester, “a troublesome location with high-traffic volumes” according to Cassini. Although Poynton is not large, some 26,000 vehicles traveling between Stoke on Trent and Manchester move daily across its central Fountain Place on the A523 road, a main arterial route.

Fountain Place had once been the heart of Poynton, explains architect and street designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie, but traditional highway design had turned it into “a traffic signal-controlled wasteland.” Ceaseless traffic from all directions had made the place so hostile to pedestrians, in fact, that people constantly tried to avoid crossing from one side of the village to the other.

When the Poynton Council decided to change Fountain Place from a no man’s land for pedestrians into a shared-space area, merely switching off the traffic lights wasn’t going to suffice. It thus fell to Hamilton-Baillie to execute the “most ambitious street design scheme yet seen in the [United Kingdom].”

At the beginning of Cassini’s astounding short film “Poynton Regenerated,” Hamilton-Baillie explains that his goal at Fountain Place is “to create slow-speed, continuous traffic movement” that doesn’t cut the village in half. His plan is to replace the junction’s traffic lights with two roundels — not to be confused with traditional roundabouts — that create a plaza-like meeting point without traditional curbs or sidewalks. Here, people can use their “natural skills” to “negotiate movement and allow the normal civilities of life to continue.”

This can work, Hamilton-Baillie says, if “gateways” announce to the driver on the highway that he is about to encounter “a sudden and complete change in scale.” In fact, Hamilton-Baillie decided to reduce the three lanes leading to the Fountain Place junction to a single lane. Cars traveling at low speeds need less space through which to move, he explains, while pedestrians can more easily cross narrow streets. This means that one can eliminate all speed limits and double the amount of space available to pedestrians in front of churches, shops, and houses. Traffic will still flow at a greater pace.

Although many Poynton residents are originally skeptical of the shared-space scheme — one of them calls it “a nightmare idea” in a junction with such a high volume of traffic — Hamilton-Baillie, his team, and Cheshire East Councillor Howard Murray, a Conservative, are certain that their idea will work, especially since they have already put it to the test using microsimulation based on real traffic data.

After 18 months of road works, the optimists are proven right. Resoundingly so, in fact. Once the shared-space scheme is completed, traffic begins to flow continuously through Fountain Place. There is no trace of a traffic jam, but the vehicles’ low speed on narrow streets allows pedestrians and cyclists, previously unseen at the junction, to cross quickly and safely. The absence of curbs also allows people with a physical disability to cross the street far more easily than at a traditional junction.

Beyond traffic flow, Hamilton-Baillie’s shared-space opus integrates Fountain Place into the village. St. George’s Parish Church and the half-timbered houses across the street merge aesthetically into the scenery. As Hamilton-Baillie explains, the church once again becomes part of the town and is no longer a barely noticeable “appendage to the highway.”

When an ugly, mid-20th century industrial landscape gives way to a picturesque “area of social interaction,” the viewer begins to see Fountain Place as the center of a rather quaint English village. Drivers innately yield to pedestrians, who wave kindly in turn. Physical beauty and greater tranquility, it seems, engender human kindness. One senses an unmistakeable joie de vivre surface unimpeded.

Shared space has the additional advantage that, by helping people feel at ease in their surroundings, it frees them to look around them and wander about. This proves to be an inevitable boost to commerce. In a question of months, 88 percent of Poynton businesses see an increase in footfall and, for the first time, young families from out of town consider moving to the village according to a real-estate agent.

The potential to create prosperity by implementing shared-space schemes, in fact, is immense. As Cassini notes, the British economy loses £20 billion a year as a result of congestion, much of it caused by traffic lights. By slashing the immense costs of operating electric traffic signals, he adds, the United Kingdom could implement “kind spending cuts” of up to £50 billion a year by embracing “Equality Streets.”

Cassini says shared space’s musical expression is a Paul McCartney song: when traffic lights are removed, people learn to “work it out.” The result is a “peaceful anarchy.” Free marketeers will instantly notice a parallel with Friedrich von Hayek’s theory of the “spontaneous order,” where a system — in this case the traffic control system — “naturally corrects and functions best without human meddling,” as the Economist succinctly puts it.

When I ask Cassini if his revolutionary philosophy of traffic reform is akin to classical liberalism, he says that he originally described his approach as “live-and-let-live.” Eventually, though, he realized that his “critique of regulation and advocacy of the wisdom of human nature could be seen as libertarian” or minarchist. His ideas about traffic consist of “letting human nature take its cooperative course,” and this is in tune with a political system of “self-government with minimal state intervention,” where the needy are supported but otherwise people can get on with their lives.

To be precise, shared space does require some meddling, but it is minimal and far less costly than operating traffic lights and paying for the accidents they cause. Cassini explains that, in the first place, one must make sure that street design “prompts the right civilized behavior,” as in Poynton. Such streetscape redesign “needs to be accompanied by culture change and reeducation, as well as a new driving test and a new rulebook.”

Cassini’s rulebook consists of a mere three precepts: first, drive on the left (or the right, depending on the country); second, mind how you go; third, give way to others who were there first, including pedestrians and especially children.

Children’s safety, in fact, is central to the Equality Streets philosophy. “The biggest indictment of the current priority system,” Cassini says, “is that it puts the onus on the child to beware of the motorist,” whereas in a truly civilized society the case is exactly the opposite. “The sociable approach to life on the roads” makes streets safe for children and, by extension, for everyone.

Critics might argue that a traffic system based on civilized behavior rather than heavy-handed state regulations might be feasible in places such as England, Sweden, or the Netherlands, where rules tend to be respected, but not in southern European or South American countries, where drivers regularly infringe the current rules of the road, flawed as they may be. But Cassini argues that “cultural differences are superficial compared with human similarities. Under the skin,” he says, “we are all motivated by an instinct for survival and a desire to cooperate.” In other words, shared space can work in Bogotá as well as it does in Poynton or Portishead.

If Equality Streets generate greater traffic flow, local economic growth and a safer environment for both pedestrians and cyclists, then why aren’t local governments across the world rushing to implement shared-space schemes? Cassini notes that politicians who set out to solve traffic problems — the current mayor of Bristol, for instance — usually think that speed limits and banning traffic from city centers are viable options. Often, apathetic policymakers and media editors simply defer “to traffic ‘experts,’ whose expertise is misplaced and influenced by vested interests.” This means turning a blind eye to “saving lives, saving public money, and transforming quality of life.”

Back to Bogotá: if the Libertarian Movement wins the election in October — we are getting more media coverage every day — there will be no apathy as we turn Colombia’s capital into a “shared-space city.” As Cassini notes and Poynton proves, there is no reason why Equality Streets can work only in places with low traffic volumes.

Ultimately, the fight against traffic lights is part of the much larger struggle for human freedom. As Professor Susan Greenfield tells Cassini, traffic lights “are a very crude metaphor for being regulated or audited or told what to do rather than (you) being able to control your own destiny.”

Equality Streets, then, show that libertarian policies not only increase prosperity by limiting overbearing state control and unleashing human beings’ creative potential. Our policies can also create a truly humane urban environment with much less congestion and abounding sympathy among citizens.

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