Good-for-nothing government?


altI was interested – but not at all surprised – to read in The Times last week that cycle lanes actually make cyclists less safe. According to a study by the universities of Leeds and Bolton, cars drive far closer to cyclists where there are cycle lanes, putting them at a much greater risk of being hit. It's a classic example of the law of unintended consequences at work: when motorists sense that cyclists have their own designated lane, they don't go to such trouble to give them space.

This is just the latest indication that government-inspired "road clutter" designed to make us safer on the roads often ends up having the opposite effect. The Dutch are probably the pioneers of this: the town of Drachten famously removed all traffic signals, and found that traffic flowed more smoothly and that accidents were reduced, not least at Laveiplein, a 22,000-vehicle-per-day junction next to a bus terminal.

But the technique has also been applied in London. As the Telegraph reported back in 2006: "Kensington High Street has been decluttered by removing barriers and simplifying road markings. Pedestrian accidents in the affected area have been reduced by more than 40 per cent." More recently, Ealing has followed suit, announcing that traffic lights would be removed from up to seven junctions leaving drivers to fend for themselves.

What this illustrates, ultimately, is the way in which spontaneous orders based on voluntary co-operation tend to be more efficient and effective than coercive ones based on government planning. Or to put it another way – letting people take responsibility for themselves usually works out better than having government take responsibility for them.

It also suggests that even in policy areas that seem so naturally the preserve of government planners, like traffic management, approaches based on individual freedom are well worth considering.