Almost a decade later, there are numerous examples of small European towns that did away with signal lights and traffic signs and, voila, traffic began to flow better, transit times decreased, and roadways became less dangerous for pedestrians and vehicle passengers alike. The absence of conventional rules improved outcomes.
The concept of a “shared space”—an area without traditional traffic signs, signals, or regulations that’s intended to be used by both cars and pedestrians—underpins many such traffic reforms. Humans don’t normally need formal rules to figure out how to navigate a crowded sidewalk, the logic goes, and isn’t everyone driving a car really just a pedestrian wrapped in a 3,000-pound potentially-lethal steel box? Backers of the Poynton intersection project near Manchester, England, note that “pedestrians in the shared-space scenario, when there are no lights to dictate behavior, are seen as fellow road-users rather than obstacles in the way of the next light.”
One of the first and staunchest shared-space evangelists was, obviously, Dutch. Hans Monderman “recognised that increasing control and regulation by the state reduced individual and collective responsibility,” The Guardian noted in its 2008 obituary, “and he initiated a fresh understanding of the relationship between streets, traffic and civility.” I have no clue whether Monderman traveled to Haiti during his time on earth, but I’d bet good money that he never sat in a Port-au-Prince traffic jam.
In Haiti, there is no meaningful enforcement of any set of traffic rules. Virtually all road space could be called “shared”—pedestrians, motorcycles, and four-wheel vehicles use the same space everywhere; only the largest intersections have traffic lights; there are no crosswalks and almost no stop signs. Instead of following a rulebook, drivers rely on local, informal norms.
Traffic in Port-au-Prince is horrifying. People do not yield to each other and spontaneously fall into an efficient order, as in England’s Poynton. In Haitian transit, people approach shared space as if they’re homesteaders on an Oklahoma land run. It’s every-man-for-himself, where every man is trying to grab every centimeter of available road space before someone else does. Instead of a free-flowing circle, a roundabout becomes an immobile tangle of tap-taps, traffic jams radiating in all directions.
There is a clear set of norms that people follow, it’s just that the norms are awful. They lead to anything but convenient transit times and low levels of accidents, and they make driving in the country much more dangerous than it could be.
One maxim seems to govern all else when it comes to traffic in Haiti: might is right. Semi-trucks and buses rule, SUVs and cars come next, and none of the above respect the thousands of motorcycles zipping along Haitian roads. At the bottom of the traffic hierarchy in Haiti are pedestrians, who play human Frogger every time they cross the street.
It’s completely normal—and pretty much expected—for cars to pull out in front of moving traffic, for vehicles to pull a U-turn wherever and whenever they please, and for drivers to ignore their surroundings in a way that would make someone who learned to drive in the United States have a mild heart attack upon riding away from the airport for the first time. The day-long gridlock is so awful and so regular that a song called Blokis—traffic jam—recently became the biggest hit on Haitian radio.
Much of the congestion can be chalked up to the sheer density of humans and vehicles in the city. I’m always floored when I see mid–20th-century references about overcrowding in Port-au-Prince, back when 200,000 to 300,000 people lived here. The city was never designed for so many people, they say. Today, no one knows how many people live in metropolitan Port-au-Prince—the last census was in 2003—but most estimates fall in the 2.5 million to 3 million range.
But the large-scale congestion doesn’t explain smaller conundrums, like why a roundabout can move so seamlessly in England but locks up like a frozen gearbox in Haiti, or how the norms got to be the way they are in Haiti—or how they got to be the way they are in the Netherlands and England, for that matter.
Researchers at a Norwegian university have studied traffic risk perceptions and driver behavior across cultures, specifically between high- and low-income countries. They note that “it is difficult to measure attitudes and behaviours in road traffic in countries where such regulations are less explicit and enforcement of such regulations is low. In countries such as Norway, safe driver attitudes and safe driving usually means compliance to a complex set of traffic rules learnt by driver training and through driver experience.” Similarly, British drivers have had efficient, safe norms ingrained into them by formal rules, and a shared space like Poynton is an exception, not the rule. Maybe drivers’ expectations need to be molded by rules and strict enforcement before an amorphous shared space will lead to order.
Perceptions of risk and consequent trade-offs might explain other differences between countries. “Differences…between high- and low-income countries are probable,” the authors write, “because there may be differences in the hazardousness in the respective road traffic environments, and how much people choose to focus on such risks when there are other unmet needs such as food, stability and protection against diseases.” They suggest that people in low-income countries may “prioritise urgent needs such as food, water and stability over accidental risks such as road traffic accidents.” In the researchers’ surveys, Tanzanians self-reported that they were more willing to take risks than participants from other higher-income countries. “A possible explanation,” the researchers write, “is that the higher risk sensitivity and exposure to risks among Tanzanians translate into more willingness to take chances in traffic…”
The shared-space mantra works for one busy intersection in England, but it fails in Haiti, where every space is shared, and where drivers may have concerns more weighty than simply arriving at the next destination. Sometimes a laissez-faire lack of rules means order. Other times, maybe the absence of rules just means chaos.
I have a Haitian friend who is married to a Norwegian woman. He drives in both countries and sometimes jokes about Norwegians being uptight and obsequious rule-followers. But he much prefers the traffic in Norway to that in Haiti.
“Sometimes I’ve been driving in Haiti,” he’s told me as I lament Port-au-Prince traffic norms to him, “and I’ve gotten mad at someone for cutting me off or something, and everyone around me stops and takes the other person’s side, like I’m the one at fault.”
“It drives me so crazy,” he says, “that in that moment, I wonder if I’m even Haitian.”