changing traffic lights by the force of your personality

From: Phil Osborn (
Date: Sat Feb 09 2002 - 16:00:36 MST

Traffic lights are interesting for a lot of reasons. For one, they're a classic case of Bastiat's "The Seen and the Unseen." Everybody bitches about the idiocy of unsynced lights, but no one individually has enough clout or incentive to actually do anything about it, despite the total cost - in the many billions of dollars per year in the U.S.

In addition, however, there are the concentrated interests that Bastiat opposes to the diffused - loser - interests, who lobby city councils or coerce or bribe city employees directly, I'm sure, to have the lights synced for their own purposes, such as forcing everyone to stop or travel very slowly in front of their mall.

One might think that a politician who bravely campaigned on the "sync the lights" platform would make it bigtime, but the fact that this doesn't happen tells you that those people who can afford to run a campaign either have bigger "hot button" issues and/or are financed - not by the diffuse public of losers in the light control battle - but by the very concentrated interests who put a low or negative priority on this issue.

When I visited relatives in New England a couple years back, one of the most amazing things I witnessed was that the lights did actually appear to be synced, or at least they changed rapidly enough that I could easilly time my arrival to synchronize with the green, almost every time. I was able to drive for miles in fairly dense suburban/urban traffic in Shrewsbury or Worchester, MA, and the surrounding areas, without ever having to actually stop. The speed limits were very low by CA standards - 30MPH typically - but I could still make much better time with a lot less gas and wear and tear on the vehicle than I ever could in most of S. California.

Of course, Massachussetts is a different world anyway - better (or at least the locals are sure it is, and let you know it) - than lumpen, Just Do It, Close Enuf For Government Work California. There was this one intersection I used several times, where a two lane local street crossed a six lane major artery. I know that no one from California is going to believe me on this, but here's what I observed:

People actually voluntarilly stopped at what looked like unspoken agreed upon intervals to let other people either turn left onto the six lane or proceed accross. !!! NOBODY would be fool enough to do that in California, as it would be the insurance fraud professional accident victim who would stop, smile and wave you on, and then slam into you if you ever tried that here.

Then, of course, there are the vast numbers of idiots or bumbling incompetents on the road in California, mostly from cultures only recently introduced to horseless transport. And in the Hispanic community, there is the long-standing low-rider mentality, of resisting the hated Yankee emphasis on efficiency, by waiting an additional five or ten seconds before responding to a green light, thereby making the smooth, stress free driving of Massachussetts pretty much impossible whereever Hispanics are a sizable percentage of the drivers. Typically, only about 30% of the vehicles that could get thru an intersection during rush hour in Massachusetts can make it in California, due to the one or two low-rider types who always gum up the works for everyone.

(The Yankee culture puts a premium on the person who is acting - as in driving. He is assumed to have the right of way, and people who slow or block traffic unnecessarily are severely frowned upon. The Hispanic culture has exactly the opposite attitude, similar to the Ghetto Black culture's "shuffle," i.e., a traditional response to thwart authority, now transposed into an attempt to maintain cultural hostilities by those low-life ignoratis who feel the need to find something to give meaning to their sordid lives. Thus, in California, both the Hispanic low-riders, and the general attitude that always grants the passive or slower person the right of way means that light timing is dominated by the time it takes to walk accross the intersection, assuming the worst case old lady with a walker and also assuming that she has never figured out how to use the cross buttons, as the timing is the same regardless of whether the crossing button is pushed, combine to strangle every artery. So, to accommodate the slow
est walkers plus the low-riders, the traffic engineers have to build six-lane streets where a two-lane would suffice in Massachussetts, which makes the crossing time that much longer, worsening all aspects of the situation yet more. ... and so on ;) )

>From a purely technical standpoint, there are obvious solutions, such as using vehicle transponders as are already in use on many public emergency vehicles. But that would require cooperation among all kinds of cut-throat yuppy city councils, so forget that. Also, the whole focus on the hundreds of intersection cameras in SoCal has been to generate income for the cities by unbelievable fines for red-light violators, starting over $200 and then essentially doubled by all kinds of cute "administrative" costs. That same system could be used to tweak the lights, obviously. But, clearly the only utility of this ongoing farce is to point up the validity of anti-government economic arguments, which I guess is something, anyway...

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