The road is there to share

Traffic is a favourite topic for trollumnists (troll + columnist) in the Sydney papers who write about the evils of bus lanes, bicyclists, pedestrians, hoons, p-platers, poor infrastructure and daily infra-urban migrations of workers and others. The latest is a column by north-shore darling Miranda Devine who writes with the devastating force of a strong opinion that is completely unsubstantiated in any shape or form.

Devine writes for a certain kind of conservative readership that isn’t too well educated, but unfortunately has to work alongside far more educated colleagues and subordinates. She taps into the existential frustrations of the ‘yes’ classes; those people at work who are quite happy to explain exactly what their boss wants you to do. She is good at isolating those minor frustrations that people have to put up with everyday in a city like Sydney and then associate it with a particular ‘type’ of person or people.

Whoever made up the Roads and Traffic Authority’s 1990s slogan ”the road is there to share” has a lot to answer for. It’s a big fat lie. The road is not there to share. Roads are built for cars. Pretending otherwise is unfair to motorists and cyclists alike.

Really? Then why does she go on to talk about the example of a bus and a cyclist? Beyond minor stupidities is the notion that the road is not a shared resource and that some road users are privileged users of the road over other road users. This is typical of conservatives, who don’t mind making appeals to brute physical force as trumping an ethics of (road) sharing when it works to their advantage.

As left economist Ross Gittins has also noted, road traffic is best thought of as a series of queues. Here is an in-depth blog post on the matter. The general idea is that queues are an immanent technology for the distribution of a limited resource. They form when they need to, and then dissipate when no longer required.

Road traffic is similar in that it is a complex series of queues. Devine seems to be throwing an it’s-my-party-and-I’ll-cry-if-I-want-to tanty about the fact that some road users, such as cyclists and pedestrians, force car drivers (and I assume bus drivers) to queue in a different way compared to the queues they would be forming purely with other vehicles.

I know how much Australians hate queue jumpers, maybe Miranda should mobilise the burden of her well crafted opinions and write something about ‘queue jumpers’ in traffic who cause far worse problems. I am talking about drivers who refuse to merge, who won’t anticipate the fact they will need to merge in upcoming traffic, those who duck across lanes into spaces that have been left by safe and considerate drivers during peak times and those that refuse to leave a safe travelling distance between cars insisting on travelling on the back bumper fo the car in front.

Here is a real world example. Have you noticed on the M4 or any heavily congested arterial road of Sydney that waves of movement start to form at a certain density of cars on the road? This has puzzled traffic engineers and physicists for a long time. Drawing on the anthropological part of my PhD, I shall provide my expert opinion of why they form. It is because there are two types of driver behaviour interacting with each other.

1) The lane hopper. There is normally very little reason to change lanes on the M4 as they all go the same way. Why are people changing lanes? Because they think one lane is going ‘faster’ than the one they are in.

2) The go-to-whoa-er. The go to whoa is an acceleration and braking-test competition held at many car festivals and shows around Australia. You accelrate as fast as possible and then brake heavily on a mark. Quickest wins. In heavy traffic the worst road users are those that helps propogate traffic waves by accelerating as fast as possible whenever their lane starts moving and then having to slam on the brakes (normally because of a lane hopper in the traffic in front of them). They accelrate hard to cut off the option of lane hoppers changing into ‘their’ lane. Why? Because they are queue jumpers.

A far more efficient way of driving during peak hour on motorways and freeways is to stay at a constant 40-50km/h. Try it the next time you are driving back towards the city on the M4.

Physicists modelling traffic behaviour

A couple of physicists and a computer modeller have studied abstract models of traffic congestion in real world situations to measure the cost of selfish driving behaviour. I have banged on about the myth of the ‘open road’ for a while now. In my TV interview on the Sunday show I located the problem of ‘hoons’ (media label for people, mostly young men, who partake in spectacular subcultural practices and rituals) with the moment of selfishness where drivers understand the road not as a shared resource but as a personal resource determined by their own journey. There is an ideological play here, the myth of the ‘open road’ is congruent with liberal (non)humanist conceptions of individual freedom. It is ‘(non)humanist’ because the freedom of the road is only enjoyed by properly cybernetic road users of ‘driver+vehicle’.

One problem that the physicists can’t account for in their traffic models involves the flow of information within a journey. Taking a certain path (a path that allegedly exists prior to the individual event of the journey) is understood as being either ‘selfish’ or not. Traffic is a dynamic event however, it is not the product of predetermined variables, but how these variables change over time including when drivers are actually on the road. Most drivers do no know if there is a traffic jam, and if there is heavy congestion, then they normally accept this as a necessary problem of certain roads. It will not be until every car can communicate with every other car through real time telemetry system combined with sat nav systems to help drivers reconfigure journeys to incorporate emergent traffic congestion events, that they will be able to have enough information to avoid traffic congestion. This will still be self-interested behaviour though…


Story is now available for viewing through the NineMSN video player page for the story.

From the Sunday website:

There is a perception, peculiar to fans of talkback radio, that car hoons have taken over the streets of our capital cities, conducting illegal races that endanger the lives of ordinary motorists and road users.

Then, so the story goes, they post videos of their outrages on the internet to demonstrate their contempt for society. Governments and police forces have responded with targetted operations seeking to disrupt and disperse groups of car hoons that gather in suburban carparks to indulge their passion for modified cars.

There is evidence that P-plate drivers are over-represented in the nation’s road toll statistics but it’s arguable whether the street racers and the young drivers dying on our roads are in fact one and the same.

A Sydney academic has studied modified car culture and found that the car hoons actually make up less than 1 per cent of road fatalities, yet millions of dollars is being spent on high profile police campaigns around the country.

Dr Glen Fuller, a former street racer, has told Sunday these campaigns and operations, will do little to prevent death and serious injury on our roads, and serve only to further marginalise young people. Draconian measures such as crushing the cars of repeat offenders will heighten tensions with police and create local folk heroes amongst the hoons.

Dr Fuller has called on governments to give up high profile anti-hoon operations in favour of educating drivers that a hoon is anyone who believes the road is there for their exclusive use.

I am an educated fool, in a Socratic fashion of course…

Hopefully they’ll put some video up at some point.

For those that are interested, some of my published academic writing, and my various blog posts on hoons.