Traffic Lights vs Roundabouts.

There are two main solutions to how to manage traffic at an intersection.

The first is having a set of traffic lights designed to keep traffic flowing by giving the green light in each direction.

The second is building a roundabout designed to keep traffic moving smoothly and safely by having all vehicles yield to traffic in the center of the roundabout.

There are significant benefits to roundabouts, including:

  • Cost of Maintenance — This is around $5,000 to $10,000 cheaper per year, per intersection. This is because roundabouts don’t require any additional hardware, maintenance, or electrical costs associated with traffic signals. There is also nothing to “break” in a roundabout; it just works. This means there is no danger of vandalism or accidental errors, requiring maintenance crews to be on call to repair the traffic lights quickly.
  • Fewer Delays — Roundabouts reduce delays by around 90% and require less space on the rounds as you need fewer lanes to handle the backed-up traffic that traffic lights can cause.
  • Fewer Emissions — Roundabouts also reduce emissions from idling vehicles by up to 50%. This is due to the fact that vehicles spend less time stopping and waiting at an intersection.
  • Fewer Accidents — Roundabouts have been shown to reduce serious injury accidents by 75%. This is because there are fewer opportunities for head-on and T-bone collisions and right-angle or left-turn accidents.
  • No More Red Light Runners — One of the most dangerous things drivers can do is run a red light. This endangers themselves and their passengers and everyone else around them. When you have a roundabout, there is no need to worry about red light runners because drivers yield to traffic in the center of the roundabout.

In philosophy, the efficiency of a system is often thought of in terms of how well it accomplishes its purpose. In the case of managing traffic, the purpose is to keep traffic flowing smoothly and safely. Based on this philosophy, it is clear that roundabouts are a more efficient solution than traffic lights. Traffic lights are often associated with delays, accidents, and red light runners, while roundabouts are known for their cost-effectiveness, efficiency, and safety. Roundabouts are the way to go if you’re looking for a solution to keep traffic moving and reduce accidents.

Roundabouts can cause some confusion. Drivers not used to them may hesitate to enter the circle, and some drivers may try to “beat” the traffic by entering too quickly. But once drivers get used to roundabouts, they become much easier and more efficient to use.

And this leads us to a broader discussion on centralized vs. decentralized control over systems. There are many assumptions behind the choice of building more traffic lights or roundabouts.

With traffic lights, the assumption is that a centralized authority (the government) knows best how to manage the traffic. This authority can be seen as a top-down approach where the rules are set by those in charge and must be followed by everyone else.

This assumes that people cannot be trusted to manage an intersection by themselves, that stronger government and centralized authority are required to manage this, and that a significant amount of infrastructure is required. Think about all the cables, switches, hardware, software, monitoring, and maintenance required to run a traffic lights system.

In contrast, roundabouts take a decentralized approach. They are built on the philosophy that people can be trusted to manage the intersection independently. The rules are simple: yield to traffic in the circle, and go counter-clockwise. There is no need for a centralized authority to tell people what to do. This bottom-up approach relies on the cooperation of all drivers to make it work.

There is an assumption that each driver will act in their best interest and make the system work. People are assumed to be rational and will act in their own best interest. Drivers will slow down as they approach the intersection, yield to traffic already in the circle, and proceed when it is safe. This philosophy relies on trust and cooperation rather than rules and force.

This line of thought gets me thinking about many other centralized interventions, especially by any government. Running a large organization at scale is a difficult problem, like really really hard. Take away what in private companies can be rather clear goals and profit and loss statements. It is difficult for a large public entity to be efficient, especially at the scale they are forced to operate, because, unlike a private company, it cannot exclude “customers”. Everyone in particular geography needs to be served.

It is difficult for a large bureaucracy to be nimble, and it is easy for those in charge to lose sight of the real goals. Layers of middle management can form, and there can be a disconnection between those at the top making decisions and those on the ground implementing them.

In philosophy, this is called the problem of distributed cognition. How do you ensure everyone in an organization is working towards the same goals? And how do you make sure that information flows up and down the hierarchy efficiently?

There are no easy answers, but decentralized solutions have a lot of potential. They are simple, elegant, and rely on people working together cooperatively. They have the potential to be more efficient and to scale better.

So the next time you’re stopped at a red light, think about its philosophy. And the next time you’re waiting to enter a roundabout, think about the trust that is required for it to work.

Perhaps there are many more areas where governments are heavily involved, where they can just provide the base layer and set the rules (i.e. the roundabout!) and then let everyone make their own choices vs carefully dictating when you should start and stop.

Unfortunately, big government tends always to get bigger, because this is in the interest of many of the people working within the organization. And because these bureaucracies tend to be long-lived, they tend to suffer from The Peter Principle. This is a management theory (and also an extremely humorous book — I highly recommend picking up an old second-hand copy from somewhere!) that states that “in a hierarchically structured organization, employees tend to be promoted until they reach their level of incompetence.” In other words, people are promoted to positions of authority until they can no longer do their job effectively. This can lead to many problems in organizations, as those in charge are often not the best qualified to make decisions.

The Peter Principle is often cited as one of the reasons for the dysfunction of large organizations. It can lead to a lot of stagnation and inflexibility, as those in charge are reluctant to promote someone who might be more competent than them. It can also lead to a lot of poor decision-making, as those in charge are not always the most qualified to make decisions.

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