Why Does the Lack of Traffic Rules Work in England, but Not in Haiti?

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

There are numerous examples of small European towns that have done away with signal lights and traffic signs and now traffic flows better, transit times have decreased, and roadways have became less dangerous for pedestrians and vehicle passengers alike:

The absence of conventional rules improved outcomes.

The concept of a “shared space” — an area without traditional traffic signs, signals, or regulations that’s intended to be used by both cars and pedestrians — underpins many such traffic reforms. Humans don’t normally need formal rules to figure out how to navigate a crowded sidewalk, the logic goes, and isn’t everyone driving a car really just a pedestrian wrapped in a 3,000-pound potentially-lethal steel box? Backers of the Poynton intersection project near Manchester, England, note that “pedestrians in the shared-space scenario, when there are no lights to dictate behavior, are seen as fellow road-users rather than obstacles in the way of the next light.”

One of the first and staunchest shared-space evangelists was, obviously, Dutch. Hans Monderman “recognised that increasing control and regulation by the state reduced individual and collective responsibility,” The Guardian noted in its 2008 obituary, “and he initiated a fresh understanding of the relationship between streets, traffic and civility.” I have no clue whether Monderman traveled to Haiti during his time on earth, but I’d bet good money that he never sat in a Port-au-Prince traffic jam.

So, why does the lack of traffic rules work in England, but not in Haiti?

In Haiti, there is no meaningful enforcement of any set of traffic rules. Virtually all road space could be called “shared” — pedestrians, motorcycles, and four-wheel vehicles use the same space everywhere; only the largest intersections have traffic lights; there are no crosswalks and almost no stop signs. Instead of following a rulebook, drivers rely on local, informal norms.

Traffic in Port-au-Prince is horrifying. People do not yield to each other and spontaneously fall into an efficient order, as in England’s Poynton. In Haitian transit, people approach shared space as if they’re homesteaders on an Oklahoma land run. It’s every-man-for-himself, where every man is trying to grab every centimeter of available road space before someone else does. Instead of a free-flowing circle, a roundabout becomes an immobile tangle of tap-taps, traffic jams radiating in all directions.

There is a clear set of norms that people follow, it’s just that the norms are awful. They lead to anything but convenient transit times and low levels of accidents, and they make driving in the country much more dangerous than it could be.

One maxim seems to govern all else when it comes to traffic in Haiti: might is right. Semi-trucks and buses rule, SUVs and cars come next, and none of the above respect the thousands of motorcycles zipping along Haitian roads. At the bottom of the traffic hierarchy in Haiti are pedestrians, who play human Frogger every time they cross the street.

It’s completely normal — and pretty much expected — for cars to pull out in front of moving traffic, for vehicles to pull a U-turn wherever and whenever they please, and for drivers to ignore their surroundings in a way that would make someone who learned to drive in the United States have a mild heart attack upon riding away from the airport for the first time. The day-long gridlock is so awful and so regular that a song called Blokis — traffic jam — recently became the biggest hit on Haitian radio.


  1. Uncle Kenny says:

    You realize, of course, that even asking this question is thoughtcrime. Such differences across “cultures” cannot exist.

  2. Ben says:

    Haiti is every politician’s dream crisis puppy; there’ll be an NGO by in minutes to “fix” this problem, too.

    Just from a physical proximity perspective, it’d be interesting to compare government and international aid for Haiti vs. the Dominican Republic.

    Being frankly ignorant of this, I might lose, but I’d wager a coffee that Haiti “needs” — and gets — a lot more State attention. Heck, I might “double or nothing” and bet on the existence of a “Haiti Traffic” NGO.

  3. Le Renard says:

    It’s not just Haiti, but many other Third world countries as well. Vietnam comes to mind, as do the Philippines and Egypt.

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