Growing up in the India of the 1970’s was, to a large degree, an exercise in comparing the shortcomings of that society with ‘the West’. In theory, that term should have applied to all the countries in North America, non-communist Europe, Australia and New Zealand. However, given the uneven inflow of information, ‘the West’ frequently meant the United States of America. Perhaps an additional reason was the consumerist society in that country, coupled with an innovation-based economy that was geared to satisfy consumerist tendencies. In our perception, ALL Americans had access to an abundance of goods, regardless of economic status. Our lived Indian experience was diametrically opposed to this perception. Owing to a combination of factors, such as the government’s increasingly socialist policies over three decades, successive crippling droughts and three wars, a nation that was emerging from colonial exploitation by the British had been further impoverished. As a result, everything was in short supply, from food and fuel to any manufactured goods (with the notable exception of textiles) to civic infrastructure such as electricity, sports facilities and roads.
Among the educated class, many older people who had seen the slide in the nation’s economic condition take place right in front of their eyes, found a captive audience in the young people around them. They used this captive audience to vent their denunciations of the various ills besetting the country. One of the points that often came up for discussion was the difficulty in moving around. They told their listeners that the chief culprit was a lack of an adequate network of roads. The more precocious among their young audience pointed out that given the severe restrictions on the manufacture of automobiles – of any kind – the inadequacy of roads was a moot point. The older speakers patiently explained that even the few vehicles that did exist were unable to move at anywhere near the speeds that were the norm in ‘the West’. The discussion then turned to ‘comparative advantage’ – one of the fundamental tenets of economics – moving at a higher speed was more advantageous than moving slowly. In the context of vehicles moving people and goods:
The speed at which traffic moves is a determinant factor in the rate of economic growth of a society.
Goods are moved around with an economic motive. The faster they get to where they are supposed to be taken, the sooner the vehicle is free for another movement – i.e. one more economic transaction. If vehicles are in excess supply in an area, and therefore cannot be quickly redeployed, their remaining idle is resolved initially by a competitive lowering of transportation rates (giving a monetary benefit to the customers) and later by disinvestment in the form of transfer of the excess vehicles to another area. The latter frees up capital for deployment elsewhere.
As for people, whether they are moving for business or leisure, their movement usually results in economic output. Some types of socialization may be an exception, where no economic activity takes place at their destination, but largely speaking, people move from point A to point to point B in order to either earn or spend money. The faster they can do so, the higher the productivity of the overall system.
Viewed from this standpoint, traffic movement is an engine of economic growth.
As we will see in this discussion, in Canada, that engine has been stalling for some time now.
A couple of summers ago, we made a family trip north, from Brampton, ON to Wasaga Beach, on the shores of Lake Huron. I had a mini-van that, throughout the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), yielded a fuel consumption average of about 7.5 kilometers to the liter. Remarkably, highway driving within the GTA made only a marginal difference in this number; the predetermined traffic stops of city streets were compensated by the unscheduled stoppages and lengthy slow-downs on the highways that service the GTA.
The route to Wasaga Beach from Brampton is almost entirely composed of highways, and because it is not a commuting route in general, traffic was light. Naturally, in the Wasaga Beach area, all driving was on rural roads, and traffic lights were few and far between. In addition, the surface of the highways and rural roads was markedly better than the city roads anywhere in the GTA. When we returned from the trip, I realized that the mini-van had yielded fuel efficiency of over 15 kilometers to a liter. This had been made possible by unimpeded movement on the roads and smoother road surface throughout the trip. The conclusion was as disturbing as it was obvious:
City traffic was cutting my vehicle’s fuel efficiency by HALF.
This can also be expressed as:
Moving around in city traffic requires TWICE AS MUCH fuel.
The question is: If we understand fuel efficiency to be a measure of a vehicle’s productivity, and if the traffic in the GTA was causing my vehicle to lose HALF of its productivity, what was it doing to MY productivity?
That is, of course, a rhetorical question; the answer is self-evident. The real question, at least for some, is: What are the factors making city traffic inefficient? Even a partial answer would enable us to prevent losing some of our comparative advantage.
In order to service new developments on what had been open land, a semi-arterial road in Brampton got extended. Apart from connecting with another road, it services a small strip mall, where about three or four medical service providers and a drug store have set up shop. The evolution of the traffic signal at the new intersection was strikingly rapid – within a few months (certainly less than a year) it went from a two-way stop sign, to a four way stop sign, to a traffic light. This is despite the fact that traffic on that stretch of the road continues to be sporadic at best. To an objective observer, the traffic light appears to have been installed because that’s what we do in Canada. Leaving matters to the drivers’ discretion seems to be the less preferred option. The few vehicles that use this intersection have to, as a consequence, spend more time negotiating it.
From my personal observation in all the cities of the GTA, the average distance between two traffic lights is about 300 meters. I have heard sensible young drivers joke that a speeding fine in the GTA is just about the stupidest way of spending money – regardless of the excess speed, no one gets anywhere fast. I have also observed that most of the time, the average speed of overall movement (i.e. distance between two points, divided by the number of minutes taken to traverse it, from start to stop) is, typically, around 30 kilometers per hour.
This is Third World speed.
Corollary: At some point, it will lead to Third World outcomes.
During our discussions in the 1970’s, it was often mentioned that in ‘the West’, traffic moves at 60 miles per hour, or roughly 100 KMPH. In comparison, Indian traffic moved at glacial speed. Driving in a city at 50 KMPH was considered reckless, and 70 KMPH was downright suicidal. All sensible drivers knew that they should drive at speeds around 40 KMPH. Accounting for stoppages (although there were few traffic lights), the average speed of movement worked out to about 30 KMPH. The country was also firmly in the Third World category at the time.
GTA Traffic moves at speeds that were the norm in the Third World FORTY YEARS AGO.
Ali Sultan, my driving instructor in the UAE, was the most seasoned instructor in the employ of Dubai Ports Authority. He had been an instructor for new recruits of the Dubai Police force for over two decades. While teaching defensive driving, he told me that ‘familiarity of the road is 40% of driving’. Consequently, he advised, any driver should be extra careful on unfamiliar roads.
Owing to large scale immigration, ‘familiarity of the road’ becomes an especially important factor in the movement of traffic in Canada, and especially in large urban centers like the GTA and Vancouver. New Canadians are not just unfamiliar with the roads, but also with the overall driving culture of Canada. The degree to which they are able to cope with their challenges in driving – from driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road to winter conditions to lane discipline – is a subject for scholars to study; at the practical level, their impact on the efficiency of movement is negative. Saying this is, of course, taboo in the self-described ‘liberal’ (read: politically correct) Canadian society. But the fact remains that their driving, as seen through the lens of the pre-existing Canadian culture, is irrational. To state the blindingly obvious, the wide chasm between the on-road behavior of a large proportion of drivers in Canada, and the expectations of the traffic system aimed at efficiency is a serious issue. The plain fact is that irrationality breeds unpredictability which, in turn, hampers efficiency. To the degree that a vast majority of new Canadians are from Third World countries, allowing their driving behavior to seep into the Canadian driving environment, and to become normalized, contributes to that system increasingly resembling those in the Third World. At the risk of offending many people, it can be said that:
Canadian traffic is being Third World-ified because we are allowing Third World practices to be imported into Canada.
This point neatly dove-tails into the next one, viz., over eager accommodation of disparate behavior.
In his book ‘Prey’, author Michael Creighton has imagined an artificially produced organism, created by a combination of nano-particles, information technology and genetic engineering. One defining characteristic of the organism is that it memorizes its experiences, and, in the next iteration of its actions, modifies its behavior based on past experience. In a nutshell, the organism has an evolutionary algorithm.
This important concept is at play in all human behavior. Negative behavior can be rectified – with exceptions – by providing negative feedback, and conformity can be rewarded by the absence of negative feedback. In management theory, this is called the ‘carrots and sticks’ approach. The sanctity of this method can only be preserved by ensuring that there are no loopholes that enable the avoidance of negative feedback, the ‘sticks’. In the name of multiculturalism and Charter Rights, we often find such loopholes coming into play. Two actual cases will suffice to demonstrate this.
In one case, a driver under the influence of alcohol couldn’t be prosecuted because the concerned police officers had pushed him in the back-seat of the cruiser in such a way that his turban came loose and fell off. As to why the police officers could not be charged with violation of the driver’s religious rights has never been explained. Ideally, the driver should have been prosecuted for DUI, and the police officer should have been made to answer for the violation of the driver’s religious rights. Curiously, both the wrong-doers were allowed to go scot-free.
In another case, a driver, a native Spanish speaker, was stopped by the police. The rules say that a translator should be made available in such circumstances (itself an onerous requirement on the system, when some 200+ languages are spoken in Canada), so the police officer got a translator on the phone – but the translator spoke to the driver in English. This lapse sufficed to let the driver walk free.
Clearly, we have reached a point where two wrongs make a right.
The integrity of a system depends on how many exceptions to the rules are allowed to exist within it. By allowing too many exceptions to the rule (that negative behavior brings negative consequences), we have weakened the system. At the very heart of the phenomenon of some countries reaching the ‘First World’ stage, lies the fact that their societies increasingly subscribed to the rule of ‘Equality before the law’. Any society disregards this basic requirement only at its peril. And as it does so, it slides from the ‘First World’ status to a ‘Third World’ one. Unfortunately, we are well on our way.
In his seminal book ‘Future Shock’, author Alvin Toffler envisaged a ‘post-industrial’ society emerging in the decades following the publication of the book. More than half a century later, most of the political leadership of Canada has, unfortunately, not grasped the concept.
What does a ‘post-industrial’ society look like in terms of traffic? A comparison with the various turning points in our recent history provides a guiding thought.
The transition of North American society from an agrarian one to an industrial one was accompanied by the replacement of animal power (primarily the horse) with, first, the locomotive engine, and later, the internal combustion engine. It is clear that we are at another turning point in history, due equally to higher population density in our urban centers as well as technological advances. Being in step with these times would require us to move away from individualized transport to efficient, wide-spread systems of mass transit. As long as it is available at reasonable cost and ensures optimal transit times, this new system would free up drivers’ time, allowing them to be more productive, as also result in savings in terms of the ownership, insurance, maintenance and running costs of vehicles that are not being used 85% of the time. The end result would be enhancement – or, at the very least, preservation – of Canada’s comparative advantage.
Instead, our policymakers have focused on providing financial incentives to the manufacturers of individualized transport vehicles (both internal combustion and electrical). Thus, our long term policies are not well-aligned with the trajectory of history. Instead of freeing up the drivers and unleashing their potential, they are being incentivized to stay behind a wheel. These alignment issues will have (or are perhaps already having) the effect of slowing us down, and reducing our comparative advantage.
The question is as to why these misaligned policies appeal to the policymakers. The answer, which we will explore in the next segment, is that it makes them feel like they are great leaders.
American businessman and author Harvey MacKay, in his book ‘Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive’, observed that the sweetest sound in the world is the sound of your name on someone else’s lips.
People who strive to achieve positions of power (who are not to be confused with ‘leaders’) are especially more prone to the temptation of ‘leaving behind a legacy’. Whether they are capable of that, or are mere placeholders of their times, is for others to ponder and figure out. Out of necessity, they are on the lookout for ‘causes’ that they think will cement their place in history. Since the evaluation of that ‘cause’, from among alternatives, is made with a view to achieving personal glory, rather than on the merits of each ‘cause’, it is always more than likely that they would make a wrong choice.
And so it has happened in Canada, where we see the governments of Ontario and at the Federal level offering subsidies for certain vehicles because they use a certain type of fuel, even though these are individualized transport vehicles that would do zilch in terms of getting people from point A to point B faster. The problem is the carrying capacity of our roads, versus the volume of demand being placed on that capacity. Incentivizing the purchase of one type of vehicle still keeps that demand at its existing level. In terms of preserving or increasing our comparative advantage, it is actually counterproductive, as resources get devoted to a wrong priority. As Economics 101 tell us:
Resources are finite, and have alternative uses.
So what is the solution? In a word, we have to turbo-charge the decision-making system.
How do we ‘turbo-charge the decision-making system’?
Perhaps ‘democratize’ is better term than ‘turbo-charge’.
But don’t we already have a democracy? And hasn’t it served us (reasonably) well so far?
Yes and yes.
But let us take a look at how democracy should be like in a post-industrial world (remember that in its present configuration, democracy is a construct of the industrial era). In particular, let us look at non-democratic or less-than democratic countries in history for guidance.
It is common, in public discussion in North America, to opine that the government getting involved (or usurping powers, if that makes you feel better) vis-à-vis certain decisions is a feature of socialist and/or communist countries. That is certainly true, but such concentration of powers in the State has happened elsewhere as well, regardless of the political hue of the governments there: in the Third World countries. The reason, or at least one of the reasons, was simple enough: the State was the only entity with the resources for certain things, such as owning a railroad or a telephone network and the like. In the Indian Sub-Continent, when speaking sarcastically, a popular colloquial term (‘maai-baap’, meaning ‘parents’) is appended after ‘Government’, signifying its status as a ‘provider’ for the population, just as parents are for their children. It is therefore possible to conclude that having the notion of an exclusively empowered State that alone has the ability to decide what is a universally beneficial outcome, and how it can be achieved, is a characteristic of the Third World. By letting such a situation arise in Canada, we are Third World-ifying our country.
What is needed, therefore, is for the individuals to take back the power that was theirs to begin with. This has two parts to it: (a) not depending on the government in an increasing number of issues, and (b) not letting the government be the sole arbiter when it comes to making decisions. Over the last few decades, power that used to be decentralized has increasingly vested in the State. It is imperative now that the vehicle of governance is put in reverse gear.