Why Deploying The Military On Traffic Doesn’t Work

Forget cars. We need to move people

Image from the SL Navy, via Newswire

In the face of increasing congestion in my city, the government decided to deploy military police to direct traffic. Besides being a waste of humanity, this doesn’t really solve the problem.

But wait, what is the problem?

There are two ways to look at it, one of which leads to more traffic, and one which leads to less. Let’s look at them.

1 | Vehicles can’t move

If you view the problem as vehicles then you build more roads. Then, however, you get more cars, more parking demand and, inevitably, more traffic. It’s called induced demand, and this way lies ruin. If you optimize for vehicles, you get more traffic. This is an iron law of city planning.

2 | People can’t move

If you view the problem as moving people, then you think very differently. How do we accommodate more people? The answer there is actually pretty simple. Cars can move maybe 2,000 people an hour whereas Bus Rapid Transit can move 17,000, or 45,000 with two lanes. It’s a no-brainer. Every car is taking spacetime away from thousands of people. If they want to do it, they must pay.

The corridor capacity of different types of transport

Rather than optimizing for your least efficient vehicle, you optimize for people. You build public transport, and charge a hefty congestion tax for any private vehicle that wants to come in and impose huge externalities on everyone else. This immediately leads to less traffic.

If you optimize for people then you’ll reduce vehicles. The result is less traffic, and a much healthier city.

What can a city do NOW?

Let’s say your city has slowed to a 10km/hr (like my city has) and you need to do something now. It’s actually quite simple. Charge any car that enters the city like $175 a month to enter the city (Rs. 30,000). In our case, that means letting motorbikes and trishaws (cabs) in for free. Then dedicate one lane for buses and mercilessly ticket interlopers.

That’s it. Car traffic will immediately drop, and you can plow the money back into public transit, ie improving the buses. In Sri Lanka, our bus network is some hideous half-privatized Frankenstein. I would give each private bus owner like 10 million LKR to fuck off and nationalize the whole thing.

Wait, what?

Most rich people I know will say that buses, tuk, and motorbikes are the problem. Why are you letting them into the city and charging me? They drive crazy, they go everywhere, they don’t follow traffic laws. But no, sorry. If you’re driving a car, especially a jeep, especially a single-occupancy jeep, you are the problem.

This one image shows the advantage of buses vs. cars

First off, cars take up a lot of space for very few people. A bus will transport 54 people in the space that cars would take for 3. Who’s the problem here?

Second, cars — especially jeeps — are incredibly dangerous. Myself and my dog have both been hit by tuks (separately) and we were totally fine. I’ve also had a motorbike rear-end me. You are at very little threat from these vehicle types, they are mainly a danger to themselves. I have, however, personally seen a jeep obliterate a human being, like turn them inside out. Tuks and motorbikes are not the danger, cars are.

Why does no one do this?

The main reason is that most people think of traffic in terms of moving vehicles. The modern tragedy of the commons isn’t land and sheep, it’s roads and cars. We treat our cities like this infinite space, and devour them with private vehicles. It’s a vicious cycle. As you get more cars, the traffic gets worse, and more people want to sit in a comfortable car. They then complain about the traffic without realizing that they are the traffic.

At some point, someone needs to come through and say, ‘NO cars, take the bus’ and deal with everyone complaining and freaking out because they’re thinking about it wrong. The trouble, of course, is that everyone on the bus wants to get a car someday, so there is no natural lobby for this. No bus-rider is like ‘Yeah! Buses!’ Everyone is looking forlornly at the Pajeros thinkings ‘that’ll be me someday’.

And maybe it will be, but then we’ll all be moving 2km an hour and may as well just walk.

But Seriously, Do This

Our government deploying the military is pointless. At the same time, they’ve rejected Millenium Challenge Corporation to upgrade traffic lights and improve public transit. We’re basically moving backward with white gloves.

What we should do instead is a straightforward congestion tax and improvement of public transit, ie buses and trains. That’s the only way to reduce traffic, by getting inefficient cars off the roads and focusing on moving people. Deploying the military is inane, unless they’re shooting Prados. If we want to end traffic, we have to change how we think. Forget cars. Move people.