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Business, Featured - Written by on Wednesday, April 2, 2008 9:29 - 10 Comments

Wikinomics applied to traffic

What happens when you decide to remove traffic signs, signal lights, and parking meters and merely ask drivers to be responsible? Sounds like a recipe for chaos… yet in the Dutch town of Drachten that’s exactly what they’ve done. Instead of chaos, they’ve found that personal responsibility and common sense go a long way toward reducing accidents and improving traffic flow. Said one citizen, “You drive more slowly and carefully, but somehow you seem to get around town quicker.”

The experiment is based on a the philosophy of what is called a “shared space”, here’s how wikipedia describes the concept:

Safety, congestion, economic vitality and community severance can be effectively tackled in streets and other public spaces if they are designed and managed to allow traffic to be fully integrated with other human activity, not separated from it. A major characteristic of a street designed to this philosophy is the absence of traditional road markings, signs, traffic signals and the distinction between “road” and “pavement”. User behaviour becomes influenced and controlled by natural human interactions rather than by artificial regulation.

Paradoxically, relying on heavily scripted traffic regulations to improve our own safety leads to a decreased sense of personal responsibility. We rely on the rules of the road instead of our own good judgment. But by removing those rules, we actually start to feel less safe, forcing good judgment and personal responsibility to flow back into the system. It’s a great model for how pushing out central authority and decisonmaking to end users can result in more optimal behavior. If it works under these circumstances, imagine how well it’d work with additional community support like we have on the web – for example, a ratings system for other drivers.

What are the implications for more distributed approaches to guiding or regulating employee behavior within firms?

Thanks to Jonathan Zittrain for bringing this example to our attention.


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Apr 2, 2008 12:14

This is only somewhat related, but is interesting to consider on the whole traffic and user behavior issue.

As has recently been done in Toronto, signals that “countdown” how much time is left until a light changes have been installed at many intersections. This effectively shifts more real-time information down to the distributed decision makers approaching said intersections.

Interestingly, the freakonomics blog has a post about how such information leads to MORE accidents – people rushing to get through.

So it’s a case where more and better information distributed throughout the system leads to worse results.

I’m also a little concerned about taking the “shared spaces” too far. As a cyclist in a large city, I know all to well what happens when a “disagreement” emerges in regards to the space. The absence of signs, dividers, etc. is not particularly comforting in this regard. Though I suppose I’d be hit at a slower speed :)

Naumi Haque
Apr 2, 2008 15:16

Of course the ultimate example of the “shared space” concept (although perhaps not as well appreciated) is the organized chaos that dictates driving conditions in many developing countries such as India or Pakistan. From first-hand experience, I can say that the complete disregard for road markings and traffic signs results in surprisingly few major accidents. There are proportionally more fender-benders and nicks and scratches, but the system generally works.

For a great visualization of just how beautifully organized chaos can be, check out the follwing video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgB7Y5SFLow

Of course navigating this type of environment requires a completely different mindset, so I can see how transitioning a highly-regulated system to this model could be disastrous.

Peter Chomley
Apr 3, 2008 20:31

Maybe the good burghers of Drachten had returned from a visit to India. The traffic “chaos” at intersections results in very few accidents and the few I saw caused very little aggression. The Dutch culture (Hofstede) has a higher Uncertainty Avoidance Index when compared to India – ie Indians are more open to unstructured situations such as unregulated traffic.
Naumi says if very well.

links for 2008-04-04 | Bieber Labs
Apr 3, 2008 23:45

[...] Wikinomics applied to traffic “What happens when you decide to remove traffic signs, signal lights, and parking meters and merely ask drivers to be responsible? Sounds like a recipe for chaos… yet in the Dutch town of Drachten that’s exactly what they’ve done.” (tags: culture traffic wikinomics) [...]

Apr 4, 2008 15:53

Great video Naumi.

Peter, I wonder how much of the lowered accidents are attributable to the extra caution taken because of the high “uncertainty avoidance index” you mention vs. any natural advantage of unstructured traffic. Be interesting to compare accident rates in India vs. Drachten.

Denis, regarding cyclists… I definitely sympathize with the problems faced by cyclists here (one reason I’ve switched from my bike to taking the streetcar). But I wonder if the legal rules of the road are part of the problem. While the law says that bikes should drive in lanes and behave just like cars, the reality is that cars going at high speeds will honk at you or try to squeeze by you in a lane (you slow them down after all) if you follow the letter of the law. On the other hand, it also make zero sense for a biker to sit behind someone’s bumper in gridlock when you can easily zip around stopped cars and make your way through the traffic. Common sense dictates one type of behavior and the laws require another – the result is that cyclists exist in this nebulous (and risky) grey area. While the article seems to suggest that it makes things smoother for cyclists, it also hints at a new problem, saying that it’s now “cyclists and pedestrians who seem to jostle for space”.

Apr 8, 2008 17:29

Some videos of designs which result in slower but continuously flowing traffic:




Alan Majer
Apr 11, 2008 21:01

Great examples Bruce. Interesting to watch, especially all the activity in the first one.

Collective Intelligence « The world as viewed by Nicosilva
Apr 19, 2008 21:35

[...] Wikinomics (a great blog that everyone should subscribe to, by the way) had a great article called Wikinomics Applied to Traffic that showed this concept working in the real world. While this is an odd article, and it might be a [...]

Jun 9, 2008 15:51

There is a research at ITESM, Mexico where cars negotiate among neighbors (using cell phone technologies and GPS) in order to form flocks like birds do; and then they can travel across a city without traffic-lights using some social rules that give them a speed bonus and a negotiation protocol at intersections.

Alan Majer
Jun 9, 2008 16:32

Hi Lely, great example. Brings new meaning to “intelligent transportation system”. It immediately begs the question of how you get from a system where there’s no automated communication/negotiation to one which incorporates a hybrid of intelligent and non intelligent cars (we have a legacy installed base to contend with). I think the airline industry is facing a similar conundrum, where some planes have built-in intelligence and the ability to communicate with towers, while others do not.

Maybe we’ll need laws that kickstart electronic communication between automobiles by replacing a standard brake and signal lights with one that also happens to broadcast some machine readable RF signal at the same time it lights up.

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