Salon is running an article by Linda Baker about a new line of thinking in traffic design that lets people govern themselves. The idea is a bit counter-intuitive, but the article explains it well. The basic concept is that when you have no rules and as little division between roadway, sidewalk, and common area as possible, transportation can actually be safer than with more rules. As the article states, “It sounds insane, but it works.”
While I’m intrigued by the idea, I’m not writing to advocate traffic law reform. Rather, it was a greater idea behind this new school of traffic design. The idea is that people will act in according to the responsibility and freedom they are given.
This idea is articulated in the article by urban designer Hamilton-Baillie: “The more you post the evidence of legislative control, such as traffic signs, the less the driver is trying to use his or her own senses.”
This is not a new idea. Stripping people of their individuality to encourage obedience and efficiency has been practiced by the military for centuries (it’s part of the reason new recruits have their heads shaved and are often forced to carry out meaningless tasks without opportunity to question their superiors).
This same phenomenon can be found, to varying degrees, in government and private corporations. I once ordered a sandwich at a local Tim Horton’s and was told they were out of bread. Seeing that they had bagels, I asked if I could just have the sandwich on a bagel. This request was met with blank stares that suggested an inner-dialog along these lines of “We don’t make bagel-sandwiches” or “There’s no button for that on the cash register”.
Had this sad employee been at home with a hankering for sandwich, some ham, and a bagel, I can only assume they would be able to put the ingredients together. Instead, they were worrying about how my simple request fit into their basic regiment.
I’ve always been bothered by organizations where people are no empowered to use their common sense. However, until I read Linda Baker’s article, I hadn’t considered that it may be even worse than it appears. When governed too tightly by rules, people forsake their own common-sense and offload their decision making process onto the system that governs them.
Perhaps this should be an amendment to Garrity’s Law of Inverse Congregational Intelligence.