Posting in Cities
Gary Lauder may not be an urban planner, but he has calculated that a single intersection wastes 14 person-years annually and advocates that our planners think about design in terms of time lost.
Would city councils think differently about unnecessary stop signs if they realized the resulting traffic clogs were more than just an inconvenience? Gary Lauder, a venture capitalist who advocates for design that takes our time into consideration, hopes so.
I spoke with Lauder about a traffic sign that encourages taking turns, how a single intersection can waste 14 person years annually and how business might help fix these problems. Below are excerpts from our interview.
You're a venture capitalist by trade, but in your spare time you think about how we can make traffic patterns, taxi queues and other aspects of our daily lives more efficient. Why do you care about this?
I've been thinking about this kind of thing since high school. This isn't my career, but I'm vocal about it. For god's sake, I'm 50 already and nobody has done anything. Whoever is supposed to be paying attention to these things isn't doing what's self evident and obvious. There comes a point when you stop waiting for someone else to do something. Having said that, this isn't my main role in life. It's not likely to be. Whether any of this comes about is unclear. If the innovation isn't obvious to other people, then I try to put in on a silver platter to get others to run with it. But that has yet to occur.
In 2010, you gave a TED Talk proposing a new type of traffic sign that encourages drivers to take turns. Talk about that.
The idea was inspired by my having gotten a traffic ticket at a stop sign at a three-way intersection. At the straight portion, it was painfully obvious there was no other car to stop for. I didn't come to a full and complete stop. That got me thinking about why that stop sign was there in the first place. It's there because during rush hour there are cars trying to get in where traffic wouldn't otherwise stop. Unless there's a stop sign, there's no way for them to get their turn. That would lead to a big backup on that side street or people taking their chances jumping out into traffic. But instead you have a stop sign where everyone needs to stop, even if no one is there. What's missing is a sign that says, If someone is there, you stop, and if no one is there, you don't stop. That's not a part of the repertoire of signs. There's very little innovation that happens in traffic signs.
The main idea of the talk is howto measure these things in terms of societal benefit by the amount of time and gas wasted. Since there's so much loss to society by wasting people's time, there are so many opportunities to not waste that time. Roundabouts are not inexpensive to put in, but there's so much value in time saved that it's worth it to make that investment.
Your talks are fascinating in that they connect the time and energy we spent at, say, unnecessary stop signs with lost money. Why don't we traditionally think in this way and why should we?
When I'm stuck in traffic or waiting on a line, I can't help but think how it could be improved. Why is it this way and why isn't it better? Most of these things happen because there isn't really a customer-service orientation on the part of people empowered to make these decisions. That's a terrible injustice. The way to get people to think about it is to say people's lives are being wasted by this inaction and thoughtlessness. This does warrant more thoughtfulness. How do we weigh that against other things? Any government expenditure needs to be justified. We tax people's money, but we don't count the fact that we're taxing people's time. And if time is money, we're taxing their money.
Can you give a couple of examples of how much something like an unnecessary stop sign costs in terms of time and money?
As I mentioned in my TEDx Marin talk, in my little town there's one intersection with four stop signs. Every morning and evening, a five-minute backup forms. That equates to 115 person-hours per day wasted, which is the equivalent of 14.3 person-years each year. If you multiply that by the average wage in America ($20 an hour), that equates to about $600,000 per year in time wasted. To translate from an annual cost into a one-time cost, you need to figure out the time value of that money. If the town could borrow money at a 5 percent discount rate, it would be worth up to $12 million to fix this problem. The good news is it could be fixed for less than a half-million dollars. If you subtract the cost of fixing it from the value of fixing it, then you end up with the cost to society of not fixing it.
In Aspen, they've been debating how to change the entrance to the city for more than 30 years. Inbound in the morning and outbound in the afternoon, people are delayed by about 15 minutes. The aggregate number of cars delayed is about 10,000. If you multiply that out including the same average wage, that's $41 million per year of the cost to those commuters. If you divide that by the same discount rate, that's an $800 million cost to society. It's worth it to spend up to $800 million to fix that. It wouldn't cost that, by the way. Part of the reason why they haven't fixed it is that the people who it affects have residences outside the city. They're not represented by the city council.
The issue you just mentioned is one of the obstacles to making these changes happen. What are the other challenges?
People aren't complaining about it. People only complain about things they perceive they can change. If a construction site was causing a delay, people would be complaining. But it's a stop sign. People don't think about the fact that there's a better alternative. The town council tends to be responsive to complaints. Another issue is simply that roundabouts aren't familiar to many Americans. Before they're put in, there are always people who say it will cause the end of civilization as we know it. But in every case, they find it isn't so bad. People have tremendous fear of the unknown. That's an issue that has yet to be addressed. Also, it will cost some money. There's always a limited budget. Just because we'll be saving people $600,000 a year of wasted time doesn't mean the town will get any of that value to help pay for these things.
This isn't part of your work as a venture capitalist, but do you see any business opportunities in these ideas? What might they look like?
There are two opportunities I perceive here, but I don't know whether anyone is already doing these things. One is to create a lower-cost instant-roundabout type of technology, which might already exist. I don't want to be too specific on this because I don't want to reduce the opportunity for some future entrepreneur to patent what I have in mind. This summer I'm going to an expo to see what kinds of solutions exist. There's also an opportunity to come up with a better way to measure traffic flow and queuing.
What do you see as the future of these issues? Is there any indication that the next 30 years will be more progressive than the last 30?
Judging by the past, it's hard to believe the future will be any different. However, there is one thing that's different about the future than has been about the past. Due to the advent of the internet, more citizens and lay people feel empowered to get involved with things they know little about. I'm an example of that. That's what it might require for these things to come about.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I'm still passively looking for a town that wants to try the take-turns traffic sign. It should only be tried under a controlled set of circumstances. You want for the vast majority of people who encounter it while driving to have already been educated as to what it means. That means it has to be a town that is small enough that you can afford to educate everybody and also distant from a major metropolitan area. To me, that's the ideal place to try this out. There is a process established for doing such experiments. That process would need to be followed. The first thing you need is a town that wants to do it. It's been three years and counting and no such town has come forward.
Photo: Gary Lauder at TED2010 / By James Duncan Davidson
Aug 11, 2013
I think it should be understood that City Councils or Local Authorities (in the UK at any rate) are ruled by Highway Engineers and The Department for Transport who have both the power and finance to overrule Planning Departments and Councillors alike. Jane Jacobs in her celebrated book 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' criticised both Highway Engineers and Planners for not being designers or creative thinkers and nothing has changed since - and that was 1961, 52 years ago! It is long past time that the Highway Engineer is trained as an Engineer - a professional who can design and be innovative - that is what engineers do. Or it is about time that they were stripped of the title engineer because they do not and have not earned it. Unlike Urban Designers, Urban Planners or Planners are NOT designers either. Planners were designers once and they might be again if their training includes design. Design requires lateral and creative thinking - both completely lacking in most Highway and Planning Departments in the UK. Whilst this situation continues we can all expect inefficient traffic flows, huge amounts of time wasted and perhaps worst of all, the uncontrolled continuance of carbon pumping into the atmosphere. Hey its only at 400ppm - what's the problem!!!
Stops signs and roundabouts are only a small part of the big problem: our traffic facilitation infrastructure is hopelessly outdated. It needs to be made functional for the 21st century by upgrading existing controls with wired and wireless distributed-intelligence networks designed to reduce the total number of stops for all trips to the absolute minimum that is consistent with safety. The investment would create enormous potential benefits beyond time savings for drivers. For instance, reducing the amount of fuel wasted by idling and re-accelerating after pointless stops could save about half the difference between highway and city mileage, yielding the equivalent of several miles per gallon improvement of our overall national vehicle fleet, and putting a major dent in our consumption of 19 million barrels a day. This would mean a lot less carbon pumped into our atmosphere, mitigating global warming, and giving automakers a leg up in their efforts to reach the new requirements of 54.5 mpg by 2025. They now spend millions lobbying for lower standards, but if they understood how much a modern Traffic Facilitation Network would help their bottom line, they might be tempted to redirect some of those millions into getting the infrastructure project rolling). Another benefit: Facilitation lowers the number of cars on the road at any given time simply by getting them to their destinations sooner, out of each other's way, parked with keys off (more fuel savings), drivers grinning with their ice cream cones or latte's. Our national road rage index will plummet, and venture capitalists will go fervid with all the startups doing software for the local, regional, and national networks, or all the makers of hardware for the solar-powered smart stop signs. All this should happen.
"Whatâs missing is a sign that says, If someone is there, you stop, and if no one is there, you donât stop. Thatâs not a part of the repertoire of signs." Hey, I know! Let's make the sign an upside-down triangle and call it "YIELD!" Sometimes I amaze even myself. . . :)
Well done Gary, everytime I stop at a badly time stoplight I give the finger to the camera above and dream of city councils not run by chimps, clowns or criminals, where a brain was used to time lights and construct right turn lanes.
The roundabout discussion is interesting as it is a hotly debated topic here. They want to replace two deadly controlled intersections with roundabouts and the opposition is substantial, especially from the Mennonites with their buggies.
The way to fix smaller problems like this (and perhaps even the big one in Aspen) is crowdsourcing. Have a private company fund the fix (and take a cut) from all the people who are annoyed & delayed by the ineffective traffic design, and who are willing to invest some of their own money. If this doesn't completely pay for it, offer some kind of "tax matching" scheme which ensures that the other taxpayer's money is used wisely, since the decision to change is coming up from the people who will actually use it. Apply this principle throughout a city or area, and it could have a multiplier effect by making the whole environment more attractive, improve property values and draw desirable industries, jobs, etc.
Pick up a free copy of the book "True Freedom - The Road to the First Real Democracy" (I found it at www.democraticroad.com) as it lays out the best developments needed for an automated road system in the USA. This approach would significantly lower wasted times found throughout the current roadway system and also cost the American taxpayers a lot less.
I just read this after writing mine, so was interested to read about the roundabout in Swindon. Hemel's roundabout is also called the Magic Roundabout(after a popular children's TV show). I note that Swindon's roundabout is only anti-clockwise. I will look on Wikipedia!
In England we have many roundabouts, which used to function without traffic lights. A lot still do, but busy multi-way intersections have had to install lights. Sometimes there is a roundabout at a side road, which can mean they have priority over the main road, although not so much traffic comes out. In a town called Hemel Hempstead, there is a roundabout which has a mini-roundabout at each intersection. You can travel either clockwise(the normal UK direction) or anti-clockwise. It does actually seem to work well, although it could be a little confusing to drivers who have not been there before. An old idea is to stagger working hours, but that has never been popular. Maybe some city planners could take a trip over near here and see how things operate. We can learn from each other.
And this doesn't even mention 1) emissions from idling vehicles, 2) wasted energy from having to brake to a stop and then accelerate again, and 3) wasted electricity at marginally useful stoplights, all of which substantially increase the payback from traffic redesign. What about smart sensors on traffic lights that can detect side-street traffic and control the lights based on real-time flow? It drives me crazy too, that no one seems to question the existing poorly designed traffic infrastructure.
A fine example of how mechanistic thinking produces inefficient systems not fit for the complex realities of our modern world. In fact, these simple/complicated designs become ever more maladapted as the levels of complexity (such as traffic load and variety) increase. 'Design that takes time into consideration' asks us to 'design for complexity' (i.e. 'for the real world'). Gary Lauder's idea for a roundabout technology that adapts dynamically to changing traffic conditions is a great one, for which there is already a proof of concept. The Magic Roundabout in Swindon, England was constructed in 1972 and consists of five mini-roundabouts arranged around a sixth central, anti-clockwise roundabout. Described as a 'complex junction', evidence collected over the years has shown that the roundabout provides a better throughput of traffic than other designs and has an excellent safety record, since traffic moves too slowly to do serious damage in the event of a collision. This is despite popular opinion that this is 'one of the 10 scariest traffic junctions in England'. More on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Roundabout_(Swindon)
In Australia they are called "Give Way" signs. A bit like the old give way to traffic coming from the right. You only have to stop when there is cross traffic. Been around for decades and works as well as roundabouts. Left hand traffic in Australia.
Traffic lights are expensive to put in and operate, and they have 10X the rate of fatalities than roundabouts. See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1446639/pdf/11291378.pdf