May 12, 2009 2:47PM

What’s Government Good For?

Those of us who are critical of government usually admit that there are a few tasks that government must perform. Run the roads, for instance. Yes, toll roads can work well, but it’s hard to figure out a truly private system of , say, city streets. I realize that some people might view me as being a hopelessly antiquated “policy libertarian” unable to see the possibilities of creative and entrepreneurial people. But that’s just the way I am.

Still, I’m starting to wonder. At least, it looks like maybe anarchy on the roads might be better than strict government regulation. Reports the Times of London:

What would happen if traffic lights were suddenly switched off? Would there be gridlock or would the queues of frustrated drivers miraculously disappear?

People in London are about to find out the answer in Britain’s first test of the theory that removing lights will cure congestion.

For six months, lights at up to seven junctions in Ealing will be concealed by bags and drivers will be left to negotiate their way across by establishing eye contact with pedestrians and other motorists.

Ealing Council believes that, far from improving the flow of traffic, lights cause delays and may even increase road danger. Drivers race towards green lights to make it across before they turn red. Confidence that they have right of way lulls them into a false sense of security, meaning that they fail to anticipate hazards coming from the side. The council hopes that drivers will learn to co‐​operate, crossing junctions on a first‐​come first‐​served basis rather than obeying robotic signals that have no sense of where people are waiting.

Westminster City Council is also considering a trial but has yet to identify likely junctions.

Ealing found evidence to support its theory when the lights failed one day at a busy junction and traffic flowed better than before. Councillors have approved a report which recommended that they “experimentally remove signals since experience of signal failure showed that junction worked well”.

The Conservative‐​controlled council has won the support of Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who is responsible for all 5,000 sets of lights in the capital through Transport for London.

One shouldn’t take Ealing’s lesson too far. However, the experience suggests that one should never assume that the way things are done are the way they must be done. We should always be willing to take a fresh look and rethink the status quo, even if we end up deciding that the status quo really is the best approach.