Slow and steady wins the race.

Not all the best ideas are the simplest. But some do stand out for the perversity of their effectiveness, yet go wanting because of the difficulty in getting people to see the greater long-term benefit against immediate short-term self-interest. Any time ‘self-interest’ and ‘failed good ideas’ there’s a high likelihood that you are talking about traffic management. The two simplest dicta that prove that you can’t trust people to make good judgments at the macro or mirco level are capacity — where it’s been proven irrefutably that if you increase road capacity congestion increases — and efficiency, where every annoying behavior (racing ahead to merge out of turn, sitting in an intersection, etc) increases travel and time, yes, congestion. So today you might save five minutes, but over the long term, math and averages are against you.

It’s pretty easy to demonstrate how congestion develops, though just about everyone with a license doesn’t need a java applet to prove it. The challenge is to modify the behavior of all participants at an equal rate, since outliers experience disproportionate benefit at the expense of the whole. Eventually this benefit fails as everyone self-selects as an exceptional. In more simple terms, if everyone respect a queue, it moves at an ideal rate. A small number of people can cut the line, and the overall progress is still close to optimal. But as everyone attempts to move ahead, you are left with a scrum of unorganized people at the node, and everyone knows what that moment is like.

Admittedly, most cultures aren’t predisposed to high levels of self-organization. And most instances of authoritarian imposition do not work over the longer term (and fairly so – a healthy amount of self-interest should be one of the motivating factors). As much as berating people into becoming better behaved dovetails nicely with my personality, it’s not a template for change agents.

Perversely enough, there are alternates out there that show signs of working. And they do that by proposing the exact opposite: the complete removal of all regulation. The concept is called ‘shared space‘; brilliant in its simplicity and as likely doomed to marginalization. You can’t really even call it a policy. It’s more of an anti-bureaucracy, the putting into place — through inaction — the notion that personal responsibility is the best regulator or human behavior.

We already have some versions of this — the generally established notion that you walk on the right in the subway. Up stairs, or down, the right way is just that. Here and there the MTA has tried to institutionalize this with signage, but most people learn the hard way (at least if they are in my way). It generally works.

The prevalence of jaywalking, and reasonable (a highly qualified statement, given the still distressing amounts of rude behavior on the part of cyclists) amounts of cycling traffic signal flouting also represent versions of this logic. And though any experience with driving in the city would lead you to think it’s hopeless to add drivers, it might not be as far fetched a notion as you might think.

I live near Pitt Street. And I’ve noted previously that I do own a car, so I have a regular occasion to drive around and through it in search of my unfairly subsidized parking. Pitt Street, for most of its brief existence — running between Grand Street and Houston (where it becomes Avenue C for all you weekend transients looking for Babel and Porch) — is an unwieldy beast that looks in parts like a parking lot for a police and fire precinct or an open air market where the vendors have just packed up, and is the closest thing to a Shared Streets experiment you will find in Manhattan. And, for the most part, it seems to be a pretty successful one.

The width of the street, along with the tail in parking (abetted by residents who take a liberal attitude about standing and double parking) barely looks like a street. Delancey intersects an awkward angle as it constricts, the most notable marking being a skewed crosswalk that is taken as a suggestion by just about everyone. Turning north, the only major traffic regulator is the light a Rivington, which serves to manage cars, but barely. People cross at all points with immunity. Kids ride their bikes when they aren’t wandering someone on the expanse. Emergency crews from the Engine 28/Ladder 11 house on 2nd Street that are assisting on calls with Fort Pitt routinely head southbound (against traffic), without even disturbing traffic flow, as the street is so wide.

There are a number of extenuating circumstances regarding this solitary example – it’s a marginal neighborhood, relative to tourist and commercial needs. And it is a dead end or inefficient for most automotive routes. While this means it would be difficult to recreate initially, it also demonstrates that communal acceptance (in this case through a rather anarchic system of non-enforcement) can enable circumstances like this. The instances where it has been applied have proved to be just as safe (if not more so) that what we currently have in place. And this famous video, which is not the result of any top down organization, is a good exemplar of how self-regulation can work in practice.

Unfortunately there is little support for radical revisions. Even the limited steps that are being undertaken are being undermined by politicians who would nominally support such measures, out of cheap pandering to hyper local (and politically-connected) interests. How such ideas get a sounding board when much of our streetscape is managed at the state level is a question I don’t really have an answer to. But it seems like a good way to think about where we should head.

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