Viewpoint: Traffic Light Reflections


Almost every time I pull to a halt at a stoplight, my eyes become beady. I calm myself by recalling aphorisms from fortune cookies; remembering aloud the speeches of manic characters in novels, such as Sinclair Lewis's Martin Arrowsmith, "Pray God preserve me from haste."

Divine intervention is not needed to preserve a driver in any American city from haste. The people who maintain the roads have seen to that very nicely, thank you. Ever since the first traffic light was installed at the intersection of Euclid and 105th Street in Cleveland on a balmy August day on the eve of the First World War, motorists have been stopping dead in their tracks for up to three minutes at a time at intersections.

If I were a fair-minded writer I'd admit that traffic lights do serve a function. You can't just have a motorized game of chicken at every intersection. Nor do you want to expose a human being to the hazards of standing in the intersection to arbitrate the conflicting ambitions of the various drivers. This is especially so as the work is dangerous; and every time someone gets knocked over, he or his family must be supported forever. No doubt about it, the traffic lights are a far more reasonable expedient than hiring hundreds of thousands of men and women with red flags to police urban intersections.

In the beginning, especially, the automatic or semiautomatic regulation of intersections must have been a distinct improvement over the expense of the traffic cop on the one hand and playing grownup bumper car on the other. When the technology was new, its inventors and manufacturers would have leapt into the entrepreneurial breach characteristic of government provision of a service and somehow fiddled the traffic department into buying first a few, then many thousands, of traffic lights.

The problem is that, while governments can be induced to adopt technologyand indeed, government invests more capital for each employee than the private sector doesgovernments seldom have an incentive to adopt the appropriate technology. This is the case with traffic lights.

It is well known that most traffic lights are mal-programmed. The vast majority are of a primitive sort that, in establishing the right of way, do not take account of the actual flow of vehicles. The effect is to waste vast amounts of fuel as well as incredible amounts of productive time. A 1976 study by a congressional committee showed that two billion gallons of gasoline could be saved over a decade by the most modest of traffic light reformssimply synchronizing the signals.

It goes almost without saying that the incredible fuel savings would show up in another form as cleaner air. Many millions of pounds of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon pollutants would never find their way into the atmosphere if the lights were properly programmed.

It should be a matter of more than passing interest that they are not. After all, politicians of every stripe and hue have been bellyaching for the last decade about the importance of saving energy or finding new energy supplies. Numberless speeches have been made about the need to treat the environment with due reverence. And even without the reverence, common sense compels an appreciation for the virtues of removing soot from the air you breathe. Yet no politician has ever said, "Let's improve traffic control technology."

It would be easy to do. Governments throughout the country have a near-monopoly on the operation of road beds. They could change the traffic lights with little or no risk of outraging powerful special interests. So why don't they do it?

The proximate answer is that it's never even occurred to them. The reason that it hasn't is that they have little incentive to organize the flow of traffic efficiently. They have the same income whether traffic flows smoothly or is obliged to stop, mindlessly, always, at each intersection.

There is no better evidence of this than the traffic control on the plexis of streets that surrounds the US Capitol. There, at any time of night, a traveler is obliged to stop…wait…start…stop…wait…

A traffic jam is as absurd and unnecessary as a department store that ran out of goods every evening at four o'clock. No, it is more absurd. No department store management, no matter how benighted, could fail to notice eventually that it needed to invest in greater inventories. Government transportation managers have failed to notice this 365 days a year in every city in the United States, and most travelersfrom the 18-wheel-semi driver to the hillbilly balladeer come round for the 13th time to "take poor Mary home"have paid for it.

It's not fun. It's not necessary. If those who operated the streets had their income tied to some proxy for their utility to travelers, traffic control devices would be upgraded to facilitate passing through the intersection. In most cases, this would require stepped up investment in modern technology, including computers and traffic sensors of the sort that backward public highway departments have failed to employ.

Government is a klutz. The problem is not just that it spends too much (as it does in most areas). It also spends too little (as in the case of traffic lights). Both ways, the spending is inefficient and inappropriate and has high social costs. Thinking about it in the queue, nine cars from the intersection and knowing that I'll never get through this light, I ride the clutch and mutter another unspeakable prayer.

Jim Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union. His most recent book is The Squeeze.