The Case for Paravehicular Traffic Management

Illustration for article titled The Case for Paravehicular Traffic Management

To understand the libertarian beauty of Third World traffic, you have to let go of system-level traffic structures and focus on near-vehicle interactions.

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Illustration for article titled The Case for Paravehicular Traffic Management

A fascinating and poorly understood layer of communication between cells in the human body is paracrine signaling: unlike endocrine hormones, which affect faraway organs, paracrine factors enable cells to communicate with their immediate neighbors, free of the grand designs of the body itself.

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Using para, the Greek prefix for “near”, one might call Third World traffic paravehicular in nature: compensating for the mostly complete disregard for the structures of conventional traffic regulation is a set of ad hoc rules which only apply to a vehicle’s immediate surroundings.

The result is a system which would no doubt delight the renegade Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman but which is a scene of utter chaos for the neophyte Westerner. In a note titled Drive Like an Egyptian, published live from the field, foreign correspondent Andras Kiraly describes his observed rules of Cairo traffic:

  • Initiate right turns from the inside lane, left turns from the outside lane
  • On a two-lane road, feel free at all times to open a third lane, or if you so desire, drive in the middle, using both lanes
  • Three-lane roads contain an infinite number of lanes
  • On a four-lane highway, you may meet any of the following in any physical or ephemeral lane: parking car, reversing truck, pedestrian walking with traffic, donkey walking against traffic, bicycle traveling in any direction, any vehicle approaching from any direction at any speed
  • If a space of half a car’s width opens up, try to force your car into it
  • Never use your brakes
  • Diesel engines emit a lovely shriek if driven at 45 MPH in second gear or at 60 MPH in third gear
  • Use at random any and all light-and-sound-emitting devices at your disposal
  • Never let your speed drop below 60 MPH
Illustration for article titled The Case for Paravehicular Traffic Management

However, longer exposures to paravehicular traffic shed light on its inner logic. Intrepid world traveler Markoferko argues that the observations in Drive Like an Egyptian are precisely the reasons why Cairo, a city of 20 million on bad roads, can maintain its flow of traffic:

There is one fundamental rule, which also happens to be the rule in Formula One: whoever is in front has the right of way at all times. Even if your front wheel is but an inch ahead of the car next to you, you can kick off a lane change, knowing that the neighboring car will back off.

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Illustration for article titled The Case for Paravehicular Traffic Management

As for how backing off and the curious absence of braking coexist, I’ll leave to the well-traveled commenters amongst you. There certainly is evidence of Cairo traffic coming to a complete stop—and not only because of Egyptian belles crossing the street against traffic with a diesel-engined donkey in light-emitting tow:

On the other hand, paravehicular organization may also be beneficial on Western roads. Like blanket speed limits which ignore weather, driver skill and car maintenance to enforce a monolithic and arbitrary pace of travel, traffic systems designed in faraway offices which by nature cannot account for momentary traffic conditions could certainly use a dash of paravehicularity.

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Photo Credit: madmonk/Flickr (1, 2), The Lab Book Pages, KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images. Hat tip to Andras Kiraly and Markoferko.

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DISCUSSION

This sort of free-for-all system only works in relatively low density areas where people are expecting this conditions and have experience dealing with them.

I wouldn't call those videos of Cairo an example of success. Unless you consider routine pedestrian deaths, your car being battered to hell, significantly reduced paramedic response times and taking forever to go even a few blocks a success. I'm pretty sure the accident rates are a lot higher out there too.

Certainly, there's not much of a chance of getting into a major accident when everyone is barely moving. The problem becomes when the road opens up but the lack of order remains. I'm fairly certain statistics will show that accident rates and traffic-relate deaths are far high in these countries.

I do think there is such a thing as too much traffic control. It's been shown that accidents can rise if a bend in a road is too clearly marked. Drivers get too confident when they see all the signaling. Of course, posting nothing wont work either because then drivers won't know what to expect.

Of course there needs to be a balance. American traffic engineers also have a fetish for traffic lights. The American philosophy for traffic management seems to be to disrupt traffic flow. Nevertheless, it's a damn site better than no traffic rules at all.

The thing is that humans are extremely adaptable and can make anything work. But that doesn't make it the right way to go.