‘Orderly traffic’ as a governance measure: a suggestion

As hard as it is to define ‘governance’, we have plenty of indicators to measure its quality: quality of key public services, extent of corruption, ease of doing business, etc. One of the challenges with these indicators is the distance between the process and outcomes, in particular, the assumptions involved in the translation of certain process into tangible outcomes. It follows that by mixing up indicators for processes and outcomes, we risk, well, measuring what doesn’t matter, and not measuring what does matter.

So as the title of this post suggests, could ‘orderly traffic’ be a good measure?

A familiar context: I live in Nairobi (and prior to that, in Delhi) and spend a considerable time waiting in traffic. What often makes traffic a problem is a complete lack of coordination amongst motorists on the road. However, I don’t think the onus of coordination at an intersection should rest on motorists – there are traffic lights or traffic police whose job it is to enforce discipline to ensure orderliness on the road. In many cities though, this is plain theory. In reality, traffic lights may not exist, or be broken; the traffic police may be absent, or just be incompetent. Motorists joust with each other every day and often end up creating gird-locks that hold everyone up. Please note that I am not talking about slow traffic caused purely due to long stops at intersections waiting for the lights to change. I am specifically concerned with the ‘orderliness’ of the flow. People waste time, fuel and a lot of their good humour (unless you are in a zen state) when they are in these gird-locks. It is usually more than evident to everyone whose fault it is and what the solution should be – and that usually only serves to raise tempers on the road. On days when the traffic flows smoothly, everyone seems happier. Zipping home after work is often the high point of the day.

Hypothesis: Orderly flow of traffic through an ordinary intersection (my sympathies lie with those who don’t know how to navigate roundabouts) is a public good and therefore, a highly desirable outcome. This outcome can be realised if a set of pre-determinable processes work, such as law-abiding drivers, presence of traffic regulating signs (cops, signals, lights), enforcement of traffic regulations by those responsible, etc. The combination of factors that contribute to the mismanagement of traffic at straightforward intersections are likely to be similar to those that result in higher road traffic accidents, petty crime and low-level corruption. Therefore, ‘orderly traffic’ could be an useful measure of the state of governance in a given city/country.

Also:

  • It is measurable: The easiest measure would be an hourly/daily observation of the number of gird-locks in the middle of the intersection. A street-cam could do it. It would be possible to create an ‘index of orderly traffic’.
  • It is universal, therefore comparable: Orderly traffic is presumably a priority everywhere. It is also a very localised indicator, one that people already informally use to compare cities and neighbourhoods with one another. The index of orderly traffic could very easily be drawn up for lower level units, such as neighbourhoods and aggregated up for city-level assessments. These could then be compared across cities and countries.
  • High pay-offs from improvement: Traffic is a highly visible indicator and any improvement will be noticed and lauded by citizens. Everyone notices a day when the traffic is good.

Most importantly, it tells us more than just about the state of traffic. As good indicators should, it offers insights beyond its limited definition. An index of ‘orderly traffic’ could be highly correlated with other governance indicators – those related to administrative efficiency. To my mind, tracing whether there is indeed any correlation would be an interesting research question. In similarly-governed cities/countries, we can expect a set of indicators to move together. And while there may not be causal relationship between them, the direction of movement of these indicators does tell us something useful about the state of governance in the given context. And of course, there will be outliers.

So the next time you are caught in a traffic gird-lock, reflect on your overall experience of governance in the city/country and whether given your experience, you are surprised about the extent to which traffic is orderly or disorderly, and vice versa. So between a Nairobi, Delhi, Mexico City, Jakarta, Dhaka and Accra – who do you think is doing better, and why?

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