The Overprotected Kid

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation, Hanna Rosin says:

Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s — walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap — are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost — and gained — as we’ve succumbed to them?

The irony is that our close attention to safety has not in fact made a tremendous difference in the number of accidents children have:

According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which monitors hospital visits, the frequency of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, including home equipment, in 1980 was 156,000, or one visit per 1,452 Americans. In 2012, it was 271,475, or one per 1,156 Americans. The number of deaths hasn’t changed much either. From 2001 through 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 100 deaths associated with playground equipment — an average of 13 a year, or 10 fewer than were reported in 1980. Head injuries, runaway motorcycles, a fatal fall onto a rock — most of the horrors Sweeney and Frost described all those years ago turn out to be freakishly rare, unexpected tragedies that no amount of safety-proofing can prevent.

Even rubber surfacing doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference in the real world. David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University, analyzed U.K. injury statistics and found that as in the U.S., there was no clear trend over time. “The advent of all these special surfaces for playgrounds has contributed very little, if anything at all, to the safety of children,” he told me. Ball has found some evidence that long-bone injuries, which are far more common than head injuries, are actually increasing. The best theory for that is “risk compensation” — kids don’t worry as much about falling on rubber, so they’re not as careful, and end up hurting themselves more often. The problem, says Ball, is that “we have come to think of accidents as preventable and not a natural part of life.”

There’s much, much more.

Group Size

Monday, March 31st, 2014

An architect by training, then a professor at Arizona State University, and now a business strategy consultant, Kristine Woolsey studies the impact of the physical environment on human behavior:

Numerous anthropological studies show that group size — the number of individuals who live or work together — is key to peaceful collaboration in all kinds of environments. The ideal group size for forming bonds of trust is around six to eight people, Woolsey said.

A gang of four can be easily dominated by one strong personality; any larger than eight, and they’ll to need to elect a leader. But right in the middle, there’s “a sort of peer pressure in terms of expected social behavior” that leads people to act in the common interest, she said.

Effective open-plan offices, such as the ones Google Inc. has designed in Zurich and Dublin, and the ones offered by NextSpace, a California-based company that rents workspaces to freelancers and small businesses, place employees in hubs of six to eight, with nearby common areas accessible to several groups, Woolsey said. Thus, rather than dividing up a giant workforce into “acres of gray cubes,” the office is instead comprised of small groups nested within larger ones.


Jeremy Neuner, the CEO of NextSpace, said he’s observed that workers naturally congregate in groups of six to eight. Recently at the company’s Santa Cruz headquarters, as a sort of experiment, a 12-seat conference table was moved into an open area of the office. Sure enough, Neuner said, six to eight people gathered there to work.

“Except when they’re up against a deadline, people are not looking for their own closed-in spaces,” Neuner said.

As Woolsey sees it, the traditional open-plan office is no better at adapting to the way people work than the old cubicle-dotted office.

Why Sweden has so few road deaths

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

The Economist explains why Sweden has so few road deaths:

Last year 264 people died in road crashes in Sweden, a record low. Although the number of cars in circulation and the number of miles driven have both doubled since 1970, the number of road deaths has fallen by four-fifths during the same period. With only three of every 100,000 Swedes dying on the roads each year, compared with 5.5 per 100,000 across the European Union, 11.4 in America and 40 in the Dominican Republic, which has the world’s deadliest traffic, Sweden’s roads have become the world’s safest.


Planning has played the biggest part in reducing accidents. Roads in Sweden are built with safety prioritised over speed or convenience. Low urban speed-limits, pedestrian zones and barriers that separate cars from bikes and oncoming traffic have helped. Building 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) of “2+1″ roads—where each lane of traffic takes turns to use a middle lane for overtaking—is reckoned to have saved around 145 lives over the first decade of Vision Zero. And 12,600 safer crossings, including pedestrian bridges and zebra-stripes flanked by flashing lights and protected with speed-bumps, are estimated to have halved the number of pedestrian deaths over the past five years. Strict policing has also helped: now less than 0.25% of drivers tested are over the alcohol limit. Road deaths of children under seven have plummeted—in 2012 only one was killed, compared with 58 in 1970.


Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors today dies with dementia, and so Dutch developers have built De Hogeweyk, or Dementiavillage, in the small town of Weesp:

Hogeweyk, from a certain perspective, seems like a fortress: A solid podium of apartments and buildings, closed to the outside world with gates and security fences. But, inside, it is its own self-contained world: Restaurants, cafes, a supermarket, gardens, a pedestrian boulevard, and more.

The idea, explains Hogeweyk’s creators, is to design a world that maintains as much a resemblance to normal life as possible—without endangering the patients.

De Hogeweyk Plan

For example, one common symptom is the urge to roam, often without warning, which had led most “memory units” and dementia care centers to institute a strict lock-down policy. In one German town, an Alzheimer’s care center event set up a fake bus stop to foil wandering residents. At Hogeweyk, the interior of the security perimeter is its own little village—which means that patients can move about as they wish without being in danger.

Each apartment hosts six to eight people, including caretakers—who wear street clothes—and the relationship between the two is unique. Residents help with everything from cooking to cleaning. They can buy whatever they want from the grocery. They can get their hair done or go to a restaurant. It’s those basic routines and rituals that can help residents maintain a better quality of living.

The Glamour of Portland

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

Virginia Postrel finds herself intrigued by the glamour of Portland, Oregon:

It’s interesting for three reasons. First, it continues to draw young people even though it’s hard to find a job there. Second, people imagine it as a sort of earthy-crunchy locavore haven even though its economy depends heavily on huge multinational companies like Intel and Nike. Finally, in an era of increasing ethnic diversity it is seventy-six percent white, suggesting that its attractions include an escape from the stresses of dealing with difference.

The Stroad

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

The stroad — built for speed but also lined with retail and residential developments — is the futon of transportation alternatives:

Where a futon is a piece of furniture that serves both as an uncomfortable couch and an uncomfortable bed, a STROAD moves cars at speeds too slow to get around efficiently but too fast to support productive private sector investment. The result is an expensive highway and a declining tax base.

Where Americans Get Enough Exercise

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Richard Florida maps out where Americans get enough exercise:

As the maps suggest, both forms of exercise are highly correlated with one another. States where people participate more in aerobic exercise also have higher levels of muscle strengthening (the correlation between the two is .81).

Also not surprisingly, states where people exercise more also have significantly lower levels of obesity and smoking, two known causes of preventable deaths. Mellander found substantial negative associations between exercise levels and obesity (-.80) and smoking (-.63).

You might think people would exercise more in warmer, sunnier states. But that’s not the case. She found a negative correlation (-.38) between yearly average temperature and exercise across the 50 states.

Exercise levels also correspond to wealth and affluence, with substantial positive correlations to both income (.65) and wages (.64). States where people exercise more are also more highly educated, with a significant correlation (.68) to the share of adults who are college graduates. And exercise levels are higher in states with more post-industrial economies, as participation was highly positively correlated with the share of knowledge, professional and creative workers (.51) and negatively correlated with the share of blue-collar workers (-.65).

Fitness participation also tracks the nation’s red/blue divide, being positively associated with the share of Obama voters (.51) and negatively associated with Romney voters (-.53). Exercise also hews closely to America’s religious divide. People in more religious states exercise less (the correlation between religiosity and exercise is -.69).

The Copenhagen Wheel

Friday, December 20th, 2013

The Copenhagen Wheel is now available for pre-order — for just $799:

Proven Safety Countermeasures

Monday, December 16th, 2013

The Federal Highway Administration lists nine proven safety countermeasures:

Proven Safety Countermeasure 1 RoundaboutsRoundabouts
By converting from a two-way stop control mechanism to a roundabout, a location can experience an 82 percent reduction in severe (injury/fatal) crashes and a 44 percent reduction in overall crashes.

By converting from a signalized intersection to a roundabout, a location can experience a 78 percent reduction in severe (injury/fatal) crashes and a 48 percent reduction in overall crashes.

Proven Safety Countermeasure 2 Corridor Access ManagementCorridor Access Management
Access management refers to the design, implementation, and control of entry and exit points along a roadway. This includes intersections with other roads and driveways that serve adjacent properties. These entry and exit points can be managed by carefully planning their location, complexity, extent (i.e., types of turning movements allowed), and if appropriate, use of medians or other schemes that facilitate or prohibit access to the roadway.

Areas where effective access management has been implemented have experienced a 5-23 percent reduction in all crashes along two-lane rural highways, and a 25-31 percent reduction in severe (injury/fatal) crashes along urban/suburban arterials.

Proven Safety Countermeasure 3 Backplates with Retroreflective BordersBackplates with Retroreflective Borders
A project initiated in 1998 by the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia and the Canadian National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control investigated the effectiveness of applying retroreflective tape around the borders of traffic signal backplates. A small number of signalized intersections were treated and followed up with a simple before/after study, which concluded that the enhancement was effective at reducing crashes. A larger number of sites were subsequently treated and a more robust statistical study was performed.

The use of backplates with retroreflective borders may result in a 15 percent reduction in all crashes at urban, signalized intersections.

Proven Safety Countermeasure 4 Longitudinal Rumble Strips and Stripes on Two-Lane RoadsLongitudinal Rumble Strips and Stripes on Two-Lane Roads
Roadway departure crashes account for approximately 53% of fatal crashes each year on the Nation’s highways. In 2009, 8,780 single-vehicle roadway departure fatalities occurred on two-lane roads. Rumble strips are designed primarily to address the subset of driver error crashes caused by distracted, drowsy, or otherwise inattentive drivers who unintentionally drift from their lane. Since driver error occurs on all roadway systems (including 2 lane roads), rumble strips are most effective when deployed in a systemic application.

Center line rumble strips on rural two-lane roads: 44% reduction of head on fatal and injury crashes.
Center line rumble strips on urban two-lane roads: 64% reduction of head-on fatal and injury crashes.
Shoulder rumble strips on rural two-lane roads: 36% reduction of run-off-road fatal and injury crashes.

Proven Safety Countermeasure 5 Enhanced Delineation and Friction for Horizontal CurvesEnhanced Delineation and Friction for Horizontal Curves
Recent data analysis shows that 28 percent of all fatal crashes occur on horizontal curves. Furthermore, about three times as many crashes occur on curves as on tangential sections of roadways. These statistics make horizontal curves prime sites for safety improvements.

Early driver perception and appropriate reaction to changes in the roadway greatly improve the safety of the curve. Inconsistent use of warning signs has been identified as an important factor contributing to the high incidence of crashes on curves.

Proven Safety Countermeasure 6 Safety EdgeSafety Edge
Vertical pavement edges are a recognized detriment to safety, contributing to severe crashes that frequently involve rollovers or head-on collisions. Studies in some States find that crashes involving edge drop-offs are two to four times more likely to include a fatality than other crashes on similar roads. Providing a flush, unpaved surface adjacent to the pavement resolves the issue temporarily, but the material is often displaced over time, recreating the dangerous drop-offs either continuously or intermittently along the pavement edge. Research in the early 1980s found a 45 degree pavement edge somewhat effective in mitigating the severity of crashes involving pavement edge drop-offs. However, constructing a durable edge was not perfected until the 1990s, and during development it was found that a flatter, 30 degree angle was easier to construct. Additional testing indicated that the 30 degree edge improved the chances of a safe recovery.

Proven Safety Countermeasure 7 Medians and Pedestrian Crossing Islands in Urban and Suburban AreasMedians and Pedestrian Crossing Islands in Urban and Suburban Areas
Midblock locations account for more than 70 percent of pedestrian fatalities. This is where vehicle travel speeds are higher, contributing to the larger injury and fatality rate seen at these locations. More than 80 percent of pedestrians die when hit by vehicles traveling at 40 mph or faster while less than 10 percent die when hit at 20 mph or less. Installing such raised channelization on approaches to multi-lane intersections has been shown to be especially effective. Medians are a particularly important pedestrian safety countermeasure in areas where pedestrians access a transit stop or other clear origins/destinations across from each other. Providing raised medians or pedestrian refuge areas at marked crosswalks has demonstrated a 46 percent reduction in pedestrian crashes. At unmarked crosswalk locations, medians have demonstrated a 39 percent reduction in pedestrian crashes.

Proven Safety Countermeasure 8 Pedestrian Hybrid BeaconPedestrian Hybrid Beacon
The pedestrian hybrid beacon (also known as the High intensity Activated crossWalK (or HAWK)) is a pedestrian-activated warning device located on the roadside or on mast arms over midblock pedestrian crossings. The beacon head consists of two red lenses above a single yellow lens. The beacon head is “dark” until the pedestrian desires to cross the street. At this point, the pedestrian will push an easy to reach button that activates the beacon. After displaying brief flashing and steady yellow intervals, the device displays a steady red indication to drivers and a “WALK” indication to pedestrians, allowing them to cross a major roadway while traffic is stopped. After the pedestrian phase ends, the “WALK” indication changes to a flashing orange hand to notify pedestrians that their clearance time is ending. The hybrid beacon displays alternating flashing red lights to drivers while pedestrians finish their crossings before once again going dark at the conclusion of the cycle.

Installation of the pedestrian hybrid beacon has been shown to provide the following safety benefits: up to a 69 percent reduction in pedestrian crashes and up to a 29 percent reduction in total roadway crashes.

Proven Safety Countermeasure 9 Road DietRoad Diet
The classic roadway reconfiguration, commonly referred to as a “road diet,” involves converting an undivided four lane roadway into three lanes made up of two through lanes and a center two-way left turn lane. The reduction of lanes allows the roadway to be reallocated for other uses such as bike lanes, pedestrian crossing islands, and/or parking. Road diets have multiple safety and operational benefits for vehicles as well as pedestrians, such as:

  • Decreasing vehicle travel lanes for pedestrians to cross, therefore reducing the multiple-threat crash (when one vehicle stops for a pedestrian in a travel lane on a multi-lane road, but the motorist in the next lane does not, resulting in a crash) for pedestrians,
  • Providing room for a pedestrian crossing island,
  • Improving safety for bicyclists when bike lanes are added (such lanes also create a buffer space between pedestrians and vehicles),
  • Providing the opportunity for on-street parking (also a buffer between pedestrians and vehicles),
  • Reducing rear-end and side-swipe crashes, and
  • Improving speed limit compliance and decreasing crash severity when crashes do occur.

The Most Dangerous Machine

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

The most dangerous machine in modern America is the automobile:

  • More than 33,000 Americans die per year in automobile accidents.
  • This is despite the fact that the rate of fatal crashes per automobile mile driven has declined by two-thirds since 1975.
  • One of the earliest safety innovations was putting a line down the middle of the road. Having a centerline on a road will cut crash frequency by at least 20 percent.
  • Until the 1980s, seat belt use was only 10 or 15 percent; today, we’re up to about 86 percent. Seat belts reduce the risk of death by as much as 70 percent — at a price of $25 a piece. There’s one life saved in the U.S. for every $30,000 worth of seat belts installed in cars — versus one per $1.8 million for air bags.
  • Over the last ten years, alcohol-related traffic fatalities have fallen by 28 percent.
  • Younger drivers tend to be more dangerous. In 1980, 18 to 29-year-olds were 30 percent of the population. By 2000, that number was down to 22 percent.
  • Driving in a city might seem dangerous, but wide-open stretches of rural road are three times more dangerous.
  • Cell phones are a dangerous distraction, but they also save lives, by getting emergency personnel to the crash site much sooner.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

William H. Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces provides a classic look at how people behave in public spaces:

Afraid to Watch Bladerunner

Monday, November 4th, 2013

William Gibson was afraid to watch Blade Runner in the theater because he was afraid the movie would be better than what he had been able to imagine:

In a way, I was right to be afraid, because even the first few minutes were better. Later, I noticed that it was a total box-office flop, in first theatrical release. That worried me, too. I thought, Uh-oh. He got it right and ­nobody cares! Over a few years, though, I started to see that in some weird way it was the most influential film of my lifetime, up to that point. It affected the way people dressed, it affected the way people decorated nightclubs. Architects started building office buildings that you could tell they had seen in Blade Runner. It had had an astonishingly broad aesthetic impact on the world.

I met Ridley Scott years later, maybe a decade or more after Blade Runner was released. I told him what Neuromancer was made of, and he had basically the same list of ingredients for Blade Runner. One of the most powerful ingredients was French adult comic books and their particular brand of Orientalia — the sort of thing that Heavy Metal magazine began translating in the United States.

But the simplest and most radical thing that Ridley Scott did in Blade Runner was to put urban archaeology in every frame. It hadn’t been obvious to mainstream American science fiction that cities are like compost heaps — just layers and layers of stuff. In cities, the past and the present and the future can all be totally adjacent. In Europe, that’s just life — it’s not science fiction, it’s not fantasy. But in American science fiction, the city in the future was always brand-new, every square inch of it.

Oddly, Gibson dubbed his imagined megalopolis covering the whole east coast The Sprawl — which now means almost the opposite: sterile suburbs, not gritty noir cities.

Race and Crime in America

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

“Reality is what continues to exist whether you believe in it or not,” Philip K. Dick once said, and the unpleasant reality of race and crime in America is no exception, Ron Unz notes:

Recall the notorious case of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose 1965 report on the terrible deterioration in the condition of the black American family aroused such a firestorm of denunciation and outrage in liberal circles that the topic was rendered totally radioactive for the better part of a generation. Eventually the continuing deterioration reached such massive proportions that the subject was taken up again by prominent liberals in the 1980s, who then declared Moynihan a prophetic voice, unjustly condemned.

This contentious history of racially-charged social analysis was certainly in the back of my mind when I began my quantitative research into Hispanic crime rates in late 2009. One traditional difficulty in producing such estimates had been the problematical nature of the data. Although the FBI Uniform Crime Reports readily show the annual totals of black and Asian criminal perpetrators, Hispanics are generally grouped together with whites and no separate figures are provided, thereby allowing all sorts of extreme speculation by those so inclined.

In order to distinguish reality from vivid imagination, a major section of my analysis focused on the data from America’s larger cities, exploring the correlations between their FBI-reported crime rates and their Census-reported ethnic proportions. If urban crime rates had little relation to the relative size of the local Hispanic population, this would indicate that Hispanics did not have unusually high rates of criminality. Furthermore, densely populated urban centers have almost always had far more crime than rural areas or suburbs, so restricting the analysis to cities would reduce the impact of that extraneous variable, which might otherwise artificially inflate the national crime statistics for a heavily urbanized population group such as Hispanics.

My expectations proved entirely correct, and the correlations between Hispanic percentages and local crime rates were usually quite close to the same figures for whites, strongly supporting my hypothesis that the two groups had fairly similar rates of urban criminality despite their huge differences in socio-economic status. But that same simple calculation yielded a remarkably strong correlation between black numbers and crime, fully confirming the implications of the FBI racial data on perpetrators.

This presented me with an obvious quandary. The topic of my article was “Hispanic crime” and my research findings were original and potentially an important addition to the public policy debate. Yet the black crime figures in my charts and graphs were so striking that I realized they might easily overshadow my other results, becoming the focus of an explosive debate that would inevitably deflect attention away from my central conclusion. Therefore, I chose to excise the black results, perhaps improperly elevating political prudence over intellectual candor.

Apparently he recently ran out of political prudence and decided to share his findings — as Excel graphs, like this one:

Homicide Rates Cities Correlation by Race

As he notes, discovering an important correlation of 0.80 or above is extraordinary in the social sciences. Henry Harpending more or less duplicates Unz’s finding; the correlation between murder rate and percent black in the state data is 0.82:

Murder Rate and Black Population Percentage

Unz suggests that this disparity between Hispanic and Black crime rates may be why our elites seem so quick to import Hispanics and thus displace poor Blacks.

Handle has a more thoroughly fleshed out explanation:

“Where does the displaced black population end up?”

It’s better to start with “What do SWPL White American people want?” Mostly they want to move back downtown from the suburbs. They want an ethnic reversal, reconquista, uber-gentrification of core urban living — to live like Urban Whites did before the 1960s — without fear of crime from Blacks, with “good” public schools (full of children of their own type and class), without long traffic-jammed commutes, enjoying cultural opportunities and proximity to centralized institutions (especially of upper middle class employment), and enjoying “pleasant person patronized” public transport.

They want a more European-style white-urban experience, and for that they have to accomplish the “Parisization” of the cities and move all the underclass to the banlieus or low-rent suburbs. This has already begun in several cities, giving a map of the racial distribution a kind of bulls-eye, archery-target appearance.

DC is probably the best example of this process that I’ve ever witnessed, but that’s because it’s one of our few “elite” cities (like San Fran and NYC) with something unique and special (and lucrative) going for it and driving the process. The process works mostly through real estate prices and government housing vouchers (“Section 8″), which price out everybody but the upper-middle class, and makes low-class blacks move to the old-near-suburbs and middle and lower-middle class whites flee the Black influx to the new far suburbs, having to suffer the commuting consequences.

For NYC, the banlieus are increasingly located in New Jersey, and tolls-plus-congestion over the bridges and tunnels works its special magic. Everything Bloomberg does has a dramatic disparate impact on Blacks in the guise of something “Progressive”. That’s why he’s popular. In the future, the Democrats will give us Jim Crow with a Progressive Face.

There are two sets of Black politicians these days: the Obama class of white-popular enlightened Progressive Reformers (Patrick, Fenty, Booker) and the old-school Urban-Black-Machine bosses (Marion Berry) who are trying to use every political trick in the book to fight “The Plan” and keep things as they are and preserve the black character of their shrinking vote-bank wards.

My own father grew up in an “old near suburb” which would be very low-rent by today’s standards, but back then it was a thriving, spotless, crime-less, meticulously maintained, orderly neighborhood with excellent schools and about which he never expressed anything but genuine justified nostalgia. And a fellow in his High School just a class above him went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Today it’s a 98% Black rubble-field that’d make Detroit look good and they closed down the school because of all the fires set by the inmates students. It wasn’t the rapes or drugs or murders, we can tolerate that socially, but, gravitationally and structurally, arson is just intolerable.

It you were to do the ethnic musical chairs overnight, you could literally witness the ghetto and all it’s social statistics be picked up and moved a few miles away from the center and replaced. Almost like the Indian Removal Act, but on urban scales. That’s “The Plan”. It’s just like Baldwin said in 1963, “Urban Renewal is Negro Removal”.

Now, whether or not this process will succeed depends on a few key factors of the city. The black population percentage, industry-income-employment trends, the geography (“natural borders”), and whatever “special sauce” the city has to rely on as a young-family moneyed-SWPL attractant (“cognitive concentrator cities”). A lot of cities will never be able to achieve this vision, and they will continue to die and hollow out. Some will and will become the few “Whitopias” — with, by the way, very hefty windfall rewards for the first generation of pioneer gentrifiers.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the slow trickle of reversal of The Great Migration of blacks returning to the South, especially to cities like Atlanta. In time, maybe the fondest wishes of those old crazy Black Nationalists will come true and this time the USG can just let the entire Very Deep South secede without a fight this time (and maybe some generous severance pay).

Everything Bloomberg does has a dramatic disparate impact on Blacks in the guise of something “Progressive”. Wow.

By the way, Unz’s intellectual candor got him predictably purged.

Demolishing a Building One Level at a Time

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Demolishing a high-rise typically involves explosives kicking up enormous clouds of dust, but demolishing a building one level at a time can be remarkably quiet and clean:

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest.)


Monday, October 21st, 2013

The British traffic circle, or roundabout, has spread:

In 1997 there were 30,000-40,000 roundabouts around the world; now there are 60,000. Half of them are in France: the French were early converts to the rond-point and have taken to it with a passion, perhaps because it offers conspicuous opportunities for the country’s notoriously competitive municipal gardeners to vie with neighbouring rivals. America is catching up fast; numbers have grown from a few hundred to 3,000 in the past decade. They are now common across Europe and have spread from the rich world to the developing one (see article).

For reserved Britons, the roundabout represents not just a clever solution to a common inconvenience, allowing vehicles to swirl rather than stop at empty crossroads, but also the triumph of co-operation over confrontation. Vehicles and the people in them do not need to go head-to-head: if everyone bends a little, everybody can get along. Studies show that they are justified on pragmatic, as well as philosophical, grounds. According to America’s Department of Transportation, replacing crossroads with roundabouts leads to a 35% fall in crashes, a 76% fall in injuries and a 90% fall in deaths.

Yet roundabouts tend to work only when motorists observe the British virtues of fair play and stick to the rules. Alas, this is not always the case.

True British understatement.

If drivers do not yield, roundabouts degenerate swiftly into gridlock. And in places where driving standards are poor, people often plough straight onto them. In Nairobi, for example, the four roundabouts that mark the city’s heart are so badly jammed that policemen have been drafted in to act as human traffic lights. When it rains, the officers seek shelter and the mess gets even worse.

Even when drivers are not to blame, the roundabout can spin out of control when transplanted to an environment less sedate than Letchworth Garden City. In very heavy congestion, of the sort that plagues many emerging-world cities, roundabouts tend to make things worse rather than better, particularly as they are often misguidedly built at the busiest intersections. Where there is no street lighting, a particular problem in Africa, drivers are likelier to make a mess of negotiating them. For cyclists and pedestrians, who are more numerous in emerging countries, roundabouts tend to be more dangerous than traffic lights. Corruption exacerbates the problem, in more than one way. In many countries drivers obtain their licence through bribery rather than proficiency and so are ill-prepared for the roads.

The fate of roundabouts abroad thus repeats in miniature that of another British export, parliamentary democracy — another fine idea that backfires when mixed with jiggery-pokery.

Jiggery-pokery indeed.