On our usual Sunday bicycle ride this morning, my wife and I got to the intersection of Roland Avenue and Northern Parkway with the red light against us. We stopped alongside five or six cars and waited. Waiting across Northern Parkway were another four or five cars on Roland, headed in the opposite direction. As we waited, two or three additional cars came up Roland each way, stopped, and waited. In the fifteen or twenty seconds we waited, only two or three, maybe four cars crossed the intersection on Northern Parkway.
As I itched to get riding again, waiting to no purpose at the (nearly) empty intersection, I found myself thinking what I have often thought while waiting at intersections: “WHY DON’T THEY UPGRADE THIS STUPID TRAFFIC LIGHT!!”
Surely today’s visual recognition systems engineers can develop—in fact, I’d bet that someone has already developed—an inexpensive device with which a traffic light can recognize how many cars are waiting in each direction and change colors accordingly to improve traffic flow. If that’s true, why doesn’t the Baltimore City government install such devices?
But I’m an economist, so I think I know the answer. The city streets are publically owned, so the bureaucrats in charge of them have too weak an incentive to improve the signal system, or even pay attention to how it might be improved.
If city streets were privately owned, wouldn’t the owners install smart traffic signals to speed traffic flow and thereby attract residents or businesses to the parts of the city whose streets they own?
Our part of Northern Parkway and Roland Avenue is in a largely residential area, so I’d guess that in a free market for city infrastructure, the streets of my area would be owned by a residents’ association such as the Orchards Association, to which my wife and I belong, or maybe an association of such associations. And that association would likely contract, after competitive bidding, with some street-management company for paving, snow removal, signaling, and the like. Wouldn’t the vendors of smart traffic systems approach street-management companies with what they would present as great deals on the best systems for saving residents and visitors a lot of time and irritation, not to mention the gasoline we now waste waiting unnecessarily for the light to change?
But our streets are owned by everybody, which means they are owned by nobody, which means that government bureaucrats manage them, which means that none of this innovation occurs.
The system is as stupid as the traffic signals.