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Not efficient, but orderly.

We seem to be a society obsessed with efficiency. Or, at least, we claim to be obsessed with efficiency. If you listen to politicians they are always talking about streamlining government to make it more efficient. In our cities, engineers and planners talk about building places that are efficient. One of the objections last week to my suggestion that cities would be better off without traffic lights was that the current system is efficient and a world without signalized intersections would not be. We've got this entirely backwards.

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I think perhaps we are misunderstanding the definition of efficient and confusing it with the definition of orderly. 

Efficient: Performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort.

Orderly: Arranged or disposed of in some order or pattern.

In 2012, our built environment is anything but efficient. I'm going to drive home from the office tonight and, despite it being after 2AM and there being no cars on the road, I will have to sit at a myriad of traffic signals and wait for the red light to cycle through to green. Not efficient.

Perhaps that's not fair. After all, the system is less worried about me at 2AM -- the random driver at a very off peak hour -- than it is about moving volumes of cars during the peak hour. But consider that for a second and you start to realize just how inefficient the system is. We design for the peak hour or two and then, for the rest of the day, all of that capacity goes to waste. Not efficient.

This is a little bit like how we design power plants and distribution systems. An electric utility must ensure that, during the hottest days of the summer when everyone has their air conditioning unit running full blast while simultaneously cooking a pizza in their oven, watching their HD television and running a load of laundry, there is enough power for everyone. For that reason, they build enormous capacity and, for most of the year, simply idle multi-billion dollar facilities while literally discharging excess power into the dirt, all so they are capable of meeting peak demand.

This is why the concept of the Smart Grid, along with variable pricing, holds so much promise. On that peak day when the AC is maxed out, power prices should be at a premium. Electricity at that point in time is incrementally so much more expensive and, thus, people who use power at those times should pay more for it. The corollary to that is simple: if you are willing to have your laundry run over night or have a sandwich instead of turning on that over for a pizza, you can save some money on your electric bill.

Our hierarchical road network isn't able to adapt to the notion that I'm not a peak user. I pay the same as the guy who chooses to be to work at 8 AM and leave at 5 PM, even though that person is causing the cost for the road to be so much greater than I am. Now he suffers through a modicum of congestion (a laughable term as applied to the roads where I live) where my only nemesis is the senseless traffic signals, but still, we spend enormous amounts of money to handle two hours of traffic a day. Not efficient.

I'll note that, when in New York a couple of weeks ago choosing which trains to take to get to Penn Station and then on to Washington DC, the cost varied based on the time of day. Peak time was more expensive. I didn't hear anyone protesting that train travel was an American right and that, regardless of my willingness to pay, the capacity I required should be available at the time of my choosing. People seemed to accept the logic that, if they wanted to shag their butt out of bed earlier than everyone else, they would get a cheaper ticket. If they wanted to ride in prime time, they were going to pay more. This is how we price airline tickets, television advertising and a myriad of other things in our so-called "free market" economy. It seems very consistent with our values, does it not?

As a very young (and financially not well off) man, my new wife and I took red-eye flights whenever we traveled somewhere. Why? They were the cheapest, of course, and at that point in my life I had more time than money. We'd often have two connections to get to where we were going, essentially enjoying a luxury of travel one step above our luggage. It was fine. We didn't have kids to bring on our adventures yet and would rather have the extra money to spend at our destination. We never considered it unfair that traveling at a more civilized hour cost far more than our budgets allowed.

There are some bizarrely inefficient things about the hierarchical road network as well. The area I live in has a large influx of tourists in the summer, particularly on three weekends: Memorial Day, around the 4th of July and during the Grand National races at Brainerd International Raceway. During these times, the highways are completely clogged. In fact, police work some of the intersections stopping the highway traffic to allow cars to merge on, a task that would be impossibly dangerous without their intervention.

While the highways are clogged, all of the side streets are empty. Nearly completely void of cars. I can get from my house into town all without going on a highway and, on those peak days, this journey has fewer cars than normal, the locals often opting to simply stay home than fight the traffic. A truly efficient system would not leave so much spare capacity untouched during its most dire hour.

Of course, it's an old observation to point out the ridiculous inefficiency of a road network that funnels a driver to a collector road for every trip. Last night on my way into the office, I needed to stop and pick up something quick at Best Buy. I could not tell from the highway whether or not it was closed before I had to decide to turn on the frontage road, but when I arrived, the lights were off. Target would also have what I needed, and while it was just across the street -- I could literally see the front door from where I was -- I had to drive up the road, turn out onto the highway and drive away from my destination, turn onto another frontage road, reverse direction and head back to Target. Not efficient.

In fact, if we could say one thing with certainty about our current approach to roads and streets it is that it is not efficient. There is no question that it is orderly -- we have signs and markings and all kinds of raised curbs and medians to direct us where to go -- but for the user, it is not close to efficient.

This all reminds me of Carlson's Law:

“In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.”

–Curtis Carlson, Silicon Valley Executive

As a society, we are very comfortable with order. In fact, we demand it above nearly everything else. Not to stray too far from the topic at hand, but one of the reasons why we accept so much spending, as well as intrusion into our privacy, for the sake of fighting terrorism is because terrorist acts are the ultimate in chaos. That we could save thousands of times more people and improve the lives of millions by redirecting that spending into medical research, or any number of other pursuits, matters little at an emotional level. We'll do what is needed for the sake of order. Period.

My suggestion last week that we shut off all traffic signals was not opposed by people because it would be less efficient. I believe I demonstrated beyond a doubt that it would take people less time to make the same trip while being safer and providing an environment for more productive (and profitable) land uses. It was opposed because it would be less orderly.

We abhor chaos. I believe it is an evolutionary trait of humans that we seek to create order, that it gives us comfort and a feeling of security we innately crave. I'll admit to this myself. We are in the middle of moving offices here and it is very unsettling for me to work with boxes of my stuff are strewn around, bags of trash to be hauled to the dump everywhere and the walls bare without any pictures. I like the order of a clean place.

This is why I think those traffic simulations are so comforting to people. Here we see all of the little cars lined up so precisely, like soldiers on a parade ground, all waiting in line, taking the turns like we expect them to. All the little ants are marching, red and black antennas waving. We're not seeing a display of efficiency, but order.

As a little test, how many of you find this short video unsettling, even though nobody is hurt or even terribly inconvenienced?

I think many people watching that will see a scary scene instead of a harmonious mixing of humanity, which is what is actually taking place. There are no deviants running people down. Everyone is sharing the space as equals. It might be chaotic, but it is also amazingly efficient. A little chaos from time to time is not a bad thing.

There was an article in Discover Magazine back in 2005 that has stuck with me -- haunted me almost -- for all these years. It was called Testing Darwin and it was about these computer scientists who had created a digital ecosystem where lines of computer code literally "evolved" over many iterations to do a multitude of tasks. In this ecosystem there were different "strains" of code that went off in various directions, some failing and some successfully solving mathematical problems in a multitude of ways.

This was all very interesting, but what freaked me out were the paragraphs at the end where they explained what happened when they tried to kill off the ecosystem.

Not long ago, he [Charles Ofria, director of the Digital Evolution Laboratory] decided to see what would happen if he stopped digital organisms from adapting. Whenever an organism mutated, he would run it through a special test to see whether the mutation was beneficial. If it was, he killed the organism off. “You’d think that would turn off any further adaptation,” he says. Instead, the digital organisms kept evolving. They learned to process information in new ways and were able to replicate faster. It took a while for Ofria to realize that they had tricked him. They had evolved a way to tell when Ofria was testing them by looking at the numbers he fed them. As soon as they recognized they were being tested, they stopped processing numbers. “If it was a test environment, they said, ‘Let’s play dead,’ ” says Ofria. “There’s this thing coming to kill them, and so they avoid it and go on with their lives.”

When Ofria describes these evolutionary surprises, admiration and ruefulness mix in his voice. “Here I am touting Avida as a wonderful system where you have full knowledge of everything and can control anything you want—except I can’t get them to stop adapting.

These lines of digital code -- literally a collection of electronic zeroes and ones -- acting independently, had found a way to adapt, to take the chaos of their environment and turn it to their advantage. They couldn't stop adapting. What a powerful insight on living things.

While I'm not an anarchist or, truth be told, even that much of a non-conformist (I am from Minnesota, after all), I bristle at the notion that planners and engineers have our lives all figured out and are somehow able to optimize things for the greater good. Whether it is traffic projections or future land use maps, the tools of order are being sold to us as efficiency. They are anything but.

And all that "order" is making us dumb, unable to even question the obvious, let alone have the flexibility to adapt and optimize our situation. If we want the experiment of human settlement to progress, what we need is to introduce a little chaos. We need to unleash us all, allow us to adapt, to find different ways to solve the same problem and, in doing so, automatically optimize the experience of humanity for everyone. 

That thousands of years of experimentation gave us the traditional development pattern -- a form of building ubiquitous across the globe prior to the Suburban Experiment -- is a gift we should not have so easily abandoned. Does it have order? Anyone who has wandered the streets of a small Italian village will tell you how it feels both random and orderly. 

Guess what? Anyone who walks through a forest will tell you the same thing.


If you would like more from Chuck Marohn, check out his new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1)

 You can also chat with Chuck and many others about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your community by joining the Strong Towns Network. The Strong Towns Network is a social platform for those working to make their community a strong town.

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Reader Comments (11)

Good post. I'm in agreement that we too often trade efficiency for order, although (perhaps its just an evolutionary tic) I'm not sold on non-signalized intersections for all just yet. +1 for DMB reference, btw.

September 24, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersmh

I would add that a perfect example of "order" versus "efficiency" is the imposition of rigid road geometry standards that ignore context, something that's been discussed many times here on Strong Towns. The highway that bludgeons its way through town without wavering in its profile may be orderly and easy to understand, but it's not an efficient use of land or resources, and it's dangerous too.

September 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

Found you through the NRDC Switchboard blog. Interesting to read your thoughts, thanks for posting!

September 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNicole T

I still think "chaotic" intersections like that one in Vietnam are a very bad idea for high volume intersection. The rate of death per vehicle in Vietnam is not just higher, not just 2 or 3 times higher than in the United States but 83 times higher. I wouldn't be surprised if the difference is even bigger for non-fatal accidents. Fortunately for Vietnam, their people have a lot fewer vehicles and probably use them less too, however Americans do not, so if American drove like the Vietnamese, the overall death rate (not car related death rate but overall) might increase by a factor of 2-3 which is unthinkable. I guess the question is why is the death rate per vehicle so high in Vietnam, is it because the roads are designed in an unsafe manner? Because they don't require seatbelts and all those motorcycles provide little protection to motorcyclists? Because they don't drive respectfully? I don't know, but I would think their road design is a big factor.

Would you really want to walk across that intersection? It would be very stressful constantly trying to dodge motorcycles. Would you want your children going there? Note that very few pedestrians seem to be crossing the intersection, they're mostly just waiting on the sidewalk, maybe for a bus since those are safer... The amount of pedestrians crossing relative to other vehicles seems to be comparable to this hellish intersection in suburban Toronto: http://goo.gl/maps/Z5DNd

Although it's true that traffic in that Vietnamese intersection is flowing better than at signalized intersection like the one in suburban Toronto (Mississauga), at what cost to safety?

That's not to say traffic lights are necessarily the best solution for very high volume intersections. You could have a roundabout, or even a grade separated intersection, which might be a bit better for traffic flow than a roundabout but more expensive and I think less pedestrian friendly (so imo not worth it).

That's not to say you can't just remove the traffic signals and not make any other changes (other than maybe stop signs) in other intersections. However, I think that kind of solution is more appropriate for lower volume intersections with narrower carriageways, more pedestrians, etc... like in London. My suburb's downtown actually has a main street that could probably have some lights removed and still be ok. Traffic tends to move slowly, around 20mph because there is a lot going on around the street (something you say engineers oppose) with delivery vans in left turn lanes, people randomly exiting parked cars, lots of pedestrians crossing at intersections and even a fair bit jaywalking, and generally a street enclosed by cars, street trees and a strong streetwall.

PS: It does seem like that Vietnamese intersection had traffic lights, but people were making turns across on-coming traffic.

September 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNicolas

I think New York City's transportation system offers another great example of this concept: Penn Station vs. Grand Central Station. The former is a mid-century "rat hole" with very specific hallways and corridors taking you to different destinations within the station. If you don't know which hallway (or staircase) goes where though - you will find yourself walking aimlessly around the subterranean station without any sense of where you are going or even what you are looking for.

Conversely, Grand Central Station is anchored by an enormous (and beautiful) grand hall - with entryways, subways, commuter rail, shops and office buildings all converging into the common space. The hall is chaotic, with people crossing it from all sides and angles. But, like the motorbike intersection - it works. No body bumps into each other, there are clear markers for where you need to go and the space is adaptable to all users. Despite the "chaos" and crownds it is a relatively pleasant experience.

September 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMax Musicant

One other way that I've seen this put is that it's not about actual efficiency so much as the aesthetic of efficiency: everything has to be all cool and sleek and new-looking. And orderly, of course. The logical conclusion of that line of thinking is a socialist planned economy, where the single central planner can find the optimum way to meet everyone's needs. Of course that quickly runs into the problem of complexity, and the fact that a lot of these problems are actually really hard in a mathematically provable way, and so the best way to approach them is with heuristics and in a distributed way, because even the world's smartest brain or most powerful computer can't do better than hundreds of millions of people, if they're playing by the right rules.

September 24, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranonymouse

Great stuff, Chuck.

@Nicolas - on Vietnamese chaotic driving safety vs. American orderly driving safety... I spent some time in Cairo, Egypt 2 years ago where fuel is subsidized and massive quantities of the population have to drive to employment centers. While they don't have uncontrolled intersections, drivers do not really use lanes and pedestrians must ignore traffic laws if they want to get to most of their destinations. The result in urban areas was exactly what you saw in the video of the Vietnamese intersection, except with only cars and pedestrians crossing paths. In this case, the cars had some level of designated right of way over the pedestrians, but everyone in Cairo knows how terribly infrequent crossings are and how obnoxious it is to walk far out of your way in the heat, so the norm is crossing wherever you can. This was one of my three favorite things about Cairo, as once we westerners got used to crossing the street, it was unbelievable how easy it could be and how people actually take the pedestrian into account, if only through small changes in course or speed. (My other favorite things were the mental chess of being able to barter for anything and the unbridled friendliness and propensity of the locals to strike up a conversation about anything in whatever combination of languages we could muster.) This made me very ready to accept Chuck's arguments about shared space when the whole Kansas City thing happened.

In short, the traffic was pretty functional where people were actively crossing and I didn't see a single accident in those situations. Where I did see accidents was on higher-speed roads that only drivers occupied. Anecdotal, yes. But I have a feeling that the situation is similar in Vietnam.

The quandary about high-volume intersections just makes me more of a proponent of reversing our hierarchical street networks in favor of more interconnected ones through which traffic can better sift. Not an immediate solution, but a long-term goal to accomplish when all the traffic lights are phased out of urban areas.

September 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSkyler Yost

@Skyler - I had the same experience, to a degree, in southern Italy. All traffic rules were essentially ignored and people drove fast and crazy, yet you always felt safe as a pedestrian and were pretty much free to go anywhere. There might be a little horn honking from time to time, but everyone who drove was also a pedestrian at some point and so it all seemed to work out culturally. It was a beautiful place.

And you are right on the high-volume intersections. I'm glad you made that point. It is a good one.

September 25, 2012 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Well, traffic signals don't always need to reflect the needs of the peak... they can be downgraded into a stop/yield, or a four-way stop, by using the lights differently. It's just that most DOTs don't want to bother with setting up two different modes and choosing the times when it changes mode. Perhaps this is a better strategy for KC, although it requires a series of full stops and so it probably increases travel times over the fully-signalized arrangement.

I'm with you on Italy... I studied in Rome, and traffic signals are pretty rare in the heart of the city. I had to cross several busy streets everyday, at nonsignalized/unmarked crossings, and rarely did I feel uncomfortable doing it.

September 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoland S

While I support the role of local government in regulating land use, your comments caused me to reflect on how far the system has morphed and is resembling a big-brother system of telling us what to build, where to build it, and how to live. Somehow we got away from the core purpose of land use regulations. Conversations to move us to fewer specifics (order) and bigger picture goals are needed. For instance, land use regulations are valuable to give property owners some level of assurance to what can be built next to them. That's critical to get significant financial investment into our towns. Another instance would be a discussion connecting land use to tax base. It's ok to be less efficient with land, but folks need to realize that often means a higher tax rate to cover basic services. There are always trade-offs in life.

September 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLawrence

@Lawrence, I'm not convinced that property owners need nearly as much assurance about what can be built next to them. I mean, sure, it probably does increase the amount that a landowner is willing to invest, but that's only because they're getting an assurance that the government will be propping up the value of their investment by creating artificial scarcity. And the government ends up getting a bit more short-term growth at the cost of cutting off long term options. Studies have shown that these sorts of regulations tend to increase housing prices while decreasing land values, which means people pay more for housing, while the government gets less tax base per unit of area (and unit of infrastructure). And as far as tax rates go, a lot of the expenses only because apparent after a full life cycle, and if you have constant growth, those can get hidden. Now that the growth has stopped, so has the free ride, but people still feel entitled to the low taxes they've enjoyed. It all comes back to the Growth-Ponzi theme that this blog loves to talk about.

September 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranonymouse
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