Traffic Rules Part I

By | April 1, 2007

Traffic1The difference between a developed metropolis and a developing one isn’t transportation — it’s the rules and discipline about how that transportation is used. A city like Hong Kong flows because everyone follows the rules. A city like Jakarta doesn’t because people don’t. It’s not about building more roads, or more subways, or more bus lanes, but about developing rules that ensure existing transportation is used as it should be. Cars, people, trains and buses flow because they each agree to a set of rules that ensure that flow. In effect it’s like one big sliding puzzle. The bits move around because there’s space for them to move around.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s just people stopping at red lights, or people allowing passengers to alight before they try to embark. The rules can be sophisticated or basic, but they only work if they’re followed: In Hong Kong a taxi driver won’t cross a thick white line even if there’s no traffic around; in Jakarta there are several red lights around the city that cars don’t bother to even stop at. In one city nothing is negotiable; in another everything is. A new buslane in Jakarta that’s officially off limits to all vehicles except buses and emergency vehicles is already awash with ordinary traffic.

Somehow in Hong Kong the rules have become the norm, and no one needs to be around to enforce them. Everyone keeps everyone else in line. In Jakarta, the rules are seen as an obstacle, something to be overcome. It’s not as if drivers in Hong Kong are somehow collaborating in a fit of consideration, but there is a tacit recognition that by following the rules, everyone will benefit. Even in pedestrian overpasses, somehow a rule establishes itself — everyone walks on the left, say, and the two-way flow is optimized. It doesn’t seem hard and fast; the next day everyone seems to be walking on the right. But it works. A self-organizing system.

Jakarta is not. It’s a free-for-all. Or actually, it’s has its own rules. It’s just they’re not optimized for the situation. The bigger the vehicle, for example, the more it will take precedence over other vehicles. And a car in Hong Kong won’t pull into traffic if by doing so it will slow down that traffic. This is what the Stop/Give way/Yield sign is for. A car in Jakarta will do the opposite: It will pull out slowly, inching into the road until the traffic is forced to slow down to accommodate it. In fact the dominance of unwritten traffic rules in a city like Jakarta ensure that traffic will never work efficiently.

Until those rules are replaced with rules that work and the discipline to ensure they’re followed, developing cities will never become developed ones. It’s not about the infrastructure. It’s about the way it’s used.

4 thoughts on “Traffic Rules Part I

  1. Tom Griffiths

    Friends from Saigon who visit the UK frequently comment that they are always amazed at how uncluttered our roads are(!)and how well organised the traffic is. Having visited Saigon a few times, I know what they mean but as a visitor there I am always amazed at how I do manage to survive when crossing the road. They seem to have an unwritten rule that if, as a pedestrian, your progress across a busy road is predictable then traffic will generally avoid you easily. As many will know, it is only when you do not conform to that unwritten rule that you life is in jeopardy! Somehow, for all the apparent wild anarchy of traffic there, there are some rules that everyone accepts and that actually work to make life on the roads possible.
    I have often wondered whether proximity to the equator indicates the extent to which rules of the road are ignored. If Singapore weren’t such a FINE city, I suspect traffic would be in a similar state to that of cities just across the water.

  2. Juha

    I remember that about Indonesia… first visit there, to Bandung, I asked which side of the road people drive on, as it wasn’t readily apparent from the traffic flow. Our guide smiled and said “whatever side there’s space and insh’allah”.

    Strong nerves are a must if you venture out into Indon traffic…

  3. Mark

    Rules of the road only work if they are enforced. And enforcement only works when the enforcement agent cares more about the rules he is enforcing than how he will personally profit from doing his job. I’d love to see Singapore-style microfines for traffic infringements but I can’t help feel that they will just be abused by the police when they are hungry.

  4. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Mark: there seems to be a point beyond where self-enforcement kicks in. Or Tom’s example from Saigon, where crossing the road is possible so long as one follows some basic rules (Indonesia adopts a slightly different practice where people cross in packs, or else wave a folder in the direction of cars signalling them to slow down.) I agree enforcement would be best, but do some systems organise themselves without it?

    Juha: my old friend Greg Earl of AFR once wrote that Indonesian cars are like fish — they are all moving in the same direction, and therefore somehow fit alongside each other.


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