Traffic: The Dynamics of Facilitative Systems
Updated: Mar 25
“Systems that strive for stability decay, and those living at the edge of chaos thrive.”
-- Dean LeBaron, in the forward to
The Emperor's Nightingale by Bob Monk
Traffic is one of the most fascinating systems on the planet. It has qualities of fluid dynamics and complex adaptive systems and it's a perfect laboratory for playing with strategies for helping actors satisfy their own needs in ways that work best for the whole system--a challenge that's core to designing healthy organizations, healthy collaborations, and a healthy society.
When traffic works well, it flows like liquid; the many conflicts among drivers are resolved dynamically and fluidly. When these interactions are dynamically resolved in a way that supports BOTH the good functioning of the whole system AND that satisfies the self-interest of individual actors over time, we achieve a kind of optimal state. Systems that deliver this optimal stage consistently over time are what I call “facilitative systems."
To understand facilitative systems, let’s look at how traffic control is handled in three countries: The Philippines, Singapore, and the U.K.
Here’s a snapshot of those systems and some of their characteristics:
The Philippines which, like many developing countries, has fairly loose rules of the road, frequent traffic bottlenecks, but relatively skilled drivers.
Singapore, which has a highly controlled traffic system, relatively few bottlenecks, and less able drivers (more on that below).
The U.K., which has a “facilitative” traffic management system, and the lowest automobile death rate of the three.
The Philippines: A “Natural Rules” Approach
On my first visit to the Philippines, my Filipino father-in-law explained the rules of the road there in a single principle: “In the Philippines, the only rule of the road is that there are no rules.”
I quickly learned the truth of that. In my first trips around Manila, it seemed that Filipino drivers broke traffic laws more often than they actually followed them. I was actually impressed with how many cars they could fit in a tiny section of road, all pretty much moving in the same direction.
It was chaotic but it also worked surprisingly well in some ways. For example, as a driver there I could save a lot of time by ignoring "unnecessary" red lights or driving on the shoulder of a road to get around heavy traffic (not that I did that, mind you). Despite the apparent chaos, a handful of "natural" rules had emerged that helped govern drivers' behaviors. For example:
If a pedestrian sees that you see her, you are obligated to give her the right of way. To make eye contact with a pedestrian and continue driving into her path is unacceptably mean;
If there's any opening to get where you're going faster, you take it, just as water would take the path of least resistance to flow downward;
Flashing your headlights first gives you precedence in a tight road against oncoming traffic;
Getting your bumper in front of a car in the next lane gives you precedence over that driver.
As I learned these natural rules, I was fascinated by how well they worked in these one-to-one interactions. They seemed natural and fluid, quickly negotiated in the moment based on norms that minimized risk with little or no external facilitation. Most surprisingly, Filipino drivers rarely seemed to get upset. That made sense in a way. After all, if no one is following the formal rules, why should I be upset at another driver who’s acting within that norm?
However, this informal system of rules also had real downsides, the major one being frequent system-wide breakdowns. In one extreme example, my father-in-law called us around 7:00 PM one evening to report that he was stuck in traffic and wasn’t sure what time he would be home. He had left his office in downtown Manila at 6 PM for the usual commute home but the South Superhighway was now completely congested and he feared that he might not be home until after midnight. He finally returned home at 7:30 the next morning.
Apparently, all the drivers had followed all those natural rules and had completely filled the shoulders of the road so the system was entirely gridlocked. After running their engines to keep the A/C going for several hours, many cars ran out of gas. Eventually, there were thousands of automobiles stretched along 10 kilometer of roadway with no fuel, and no way to get refueled easily. Eventually, people formed teams to convey gas to the cars and police focused on getting the cars in front moving forward, one section at a time. It took 11 hours to completely clear the jam.
Clearly, these drivers had each been acting in his or her own self-interest and did what seemed most efficient at the time from that perspective. However, with little external facilitation to convince them otherwise, and no way to understand the whole system impacts of their individual decisions, the drivers completely overwhelmed the system.
Occasional systemic breakdown isn’t the only problem with what we might call this "Natural Rules" traffic system. While the Philippines has a generally low death rate from auto accidents compared to many other countries, grisly accidents do occur, and these often involve foreign drivers (often Americans) operating with little practice driving in this relatively chaotic system. So it seems that in part these natural rules are also heavily culturally-specific and may not be clearly communicated or maintained across diverse groups.
So could a far more controlled and hierarchical system work better? Let's look to Singapore's system...
Singapore: The Command and Control Approach
“Singapore is the land of angry drivers,” claims my brother-in-law, a long-time resident. “If you break the law, they yell at you, like you’ve personally insulted them. It’s really strange.”
Why should Singaporean drivers be so upset? After all, their traffic system works, their road are relatively safe compared to many countries, and the rules of the road are clear and well-communicated.
The problem with driving in Singapore isn’t that the system doesn’t work. It may be that the system works too well. Traffic in Singapore is so tightly controlled that drivers have little opportunity to develop adaptive driving skills. If you drive from point A to point B, you'll make few decisions along the way—just follow the lines and signs and don't exercise much, if any, personal discretion.
The implication of that is that the typical Singaporean driver is poorly trained by the system to resolve conflict quickly and dynamically in less structured situations.
According to Sheila Damodaran, former head of learning at the Singapore Police Force, this is a known problem. “Yes, it’s a big problem for us,” she said in 2006. “We’re a small country and we’re packed in tight so we tend to manage things like traffic much more tightly than other countries. However, we realize that this causes problems and has social effects too.”
According to Damodaran, Singaporean drivers “are much more likely to be involved in accidents outside Singapore simply because they’ve become so reliant on our highly controlled system.” Worst case scenario? Possibly a Singaporean driver in the Philippines.
It seems that command and control structures like the traffic system in Singapore breed dependence and a kind of “brittle” system that doesn’t adapt well to ambiguity and uncertainty. When every decision is dictated by the traffic system and compliance is strictly enforced by the police (and other angry drivers), the driver’s job is direct and simple: Stay in your lane, stop at the red lights, go at the green lights, turn right when you’re told. Pedestrians also walk when the walk signs tell them do, and stop when they’re told to stop.
In Singapore, a driver can get a ticket for rolling a stop sign when there is no one else near the intersection, or can justifiably proceed on a green light even if a car is coming too fast from his right. Yet it's not natural to wait at an empty intersection, or to proceed when there is clear risk. Certainly few Filipino drivers would do these things. So the problem with command-and-control systems like the Singaporean traffic system is that they often tell drivers to set aside their natural adaptive skills which, in a "natural rules" system like the Philippines, get developed and enhanced over time. That produces, in driving at least, complacent rule-followers, dependent on the system to make decisions for them, a response that inevitably fails in situations that are less formal and controlled.
United Kingdom: The Facilitative Approach
The U.K., like Singapore, has clearly-established and enforced rules of the road. Brits also have lots of technology to support those rules, including many cameras to catch drivers who make poor decisions. Like the other systems described here, the U.K. requires drivers to pass basic driver training courses to ensure that they understand the rules of the road.
However, something about the British system clearly seems to work better overall than our other two cases; It’s a kind of facilitative system that it allows drivers to make individual decisions based on their own natural self-interest AND optimizes efficiency for all drivers in the system at the same time.
Here are a few examples of facilitative elements of the British traffic system:
Roundabouts. These little innovations are both time and fuel efficient, and they are found all over the U.K. Roundabouts work so well because they take advantage of a powerful motivation: The drivers’ desire to stay alive. After all, you wouldn't simply pull into a lane in front of oncoming traffic, would you? The feedback to you as a driver is clear—there is a car in the roundabout and it's coming at you, so you're going to get hurt if you enter the circle at the wrong time. While accidents do happen in roundabouts, they are, according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (which is now encouraging roundabouts in the U.S.), “substantially safer than signalized and stop-controlled intersections and much more efficient.” The reason is simple: They make us think and negotiate conflict with other drivers, and they do it efficiently.
Flex lanes. On two-lane roads all around the U.K., a third lane often appears between the opposing lanes. These third lanes serve one simple purpose: To allow faster drivers to pass slower ones. These extra, temporary lanes require very little infrastructure and they pay real dividends in efficiency. After all, even the slowest of us have at times been stuck behind an even slower driver with no way to pass. And the same natural effect applies here as in roundabouts—you naturally would not enter a shared lane when other car coming from the other direction is already in it!
Single lane roads with pull-offs. While the good-old single lane road might not be a modern innovation, it's another wonderful example of a highly efficient solution to an old problem. In fact, single lane roads are the simplest facilitative element of the bunch. While driving along any one-lane road in England, Wales, or other parts of the British Islands, you will inevitably encounter another driver coming from the opposite direction. Usually, a pull-off is not far away and, conveniently, is usually closer to one driver than the other, so a norm (a natural rule) has developed to help drivers resolve the conflict of which driver should cede the right of way. Since only a single-lane is needed around many rural parts of the U.K., it is a resource-efficient solution for the whole system that, when coupled with pull-offs, also facilitates natural resolutions of conflicts among individual drivers.
Push-button crosswalks. While common now in other parts of the world, the push-button crosswalk is another efficient on-demand facilitative element popularized by the British. After all, pushing a button when you need to cross a street certainly makes more sense than waiting at an empty intersection for a timed walk light, or having cars idle when there is no cross traffic and no pedestrians waiting to cross the road. This is another example of a simple element that nicely facilitates the interplay between individual needs and desires and the effective operation of the larger system.
In these examples, we see some elements of facilitative traffic systems that optimize individual interests while working more efficiently for the system overall. Based on these, we might generalize a bit and observe that facilitative systems:
Have "on-demand" negotiation elements that appear when needed and aren’t present when they aren’t needed;
Facilitate direct communication and resolution between actors (rather than asking them to abdicate the negotiation process to a control system),
Keep just enough risk in the system to foster actors’ ongoing learning and vigilant behavior,
Foster freedom of choice but also provide parameters to ensure for better outcomes for the whole system.
The beauty of facilitative elements is that they actually make our social fabric more resilient by facilitating successful transactions in situations that are potentially high-conflict, inefficient, frustrating, and even dangerous. They help us manage chaos and uncertainty through judgement and dialog, rather than neutralizing these natural and very human traits through systems controls. And to everyone’s benefit, facilitative systems foster efficiency at the whole system level by providing just enough control to keep the whole system working fluidly, even during times of stress.
The concept of facilitative systems also raises some interesting questions:
What, if any, of these types of "facilitative elements" do we find in other social systems, such as organizations?
Is traffic more than just a metaphor for a core design tension that we also see in public policy or in social conflicts? That is, could we actually design public policies on issues like public health, for example, in ways that produce both support for individual actors to get their needs met AND drive accountability for taking care of themselves?
Shall we think about ways for an increasingly fragmented social fabric to be made resilient and supple again by providing citizens with experiences in which they rub up against differences and experience conflict, but based on a clear recognition of the implications of their choices for their self-interest, encourage them to efficiently negotiate and dynamically resolve conflicts?
My sense is that the traffic analysis is much more than a metaphor and that the same dynamic is in play in various systems that we live and work in. I'd love to hear from you about your own examples of how these show up.