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Kevin Meyer


From Linear to Roundabout Thinking

Chaos can be productive

Published: Thursday, January 25, 2018 - 13:03

Ever since I visited Italy more than a decade ago my inner geek has had a fascination with traffic engineering. If you’ve visited Italy, or many similar places, you probably know why. Traffic appears chaotic, thanks in part to what appears at first glance to be a lack of signals and other controls. To those of us with highly regimented traffic control systems, this feels crazy and even scary. Until we realize something: Traffic flows continuously, pretty much everywhere.

Now it may not be a fast, but the net effect is often more flow than the stop-and-go, signal-driven batch movement that exists in many U.S. cities. Traffic engineers have recognized this as well, with many cities intentionally removing signals.

“In fact, the chaos associated with traffic in developing countries is becoming all the rage among a new wave of traffic engineers in mainland Europe and, more recently, in the United Kingdom,” writes Linda Baker in the article, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”

“It’s called ‘second generation’ traffic calming, a combination of traffic engineering and urban design that also draws heavily on the fields of behavioral psychology and—of all subjects—evolutionary biology. Rejecting the idea of separating people from vehicular traffic, it’s a concept that privileges multiplicity over homogeneity, disorder over order, and intrigue over certainty. In practice, it’s about dismantling barriers: between the road and the sidewalk; between cars, pedestrians, and cyclists; and most controversially, between moving vehicles and children at play,” says Baker.

The psychology of this is particularly interesting. In countries with highly controlled traffic, the emphasis has been on reducing chaos by removing human decisions. This has had the negative effect of disengaging drivers (and pedestrians and bikers) from the environment, which can actually create more risk.

“One of the characteristics of a shared environment is that it appears chaotic, it appears very complex, and it demands a strong level of having your wits about you,” says U.K. traffic and urban design consultant Ben Hamilton-Baillie, speaking from his home in Bristol. “The history of traffic engineering is the effort to rationalize what appeared to be chaos,” he says. “Today, we have a better understanding that chaos can be productive.”

Hamilton-Baillie argues that the key to improving both safety and vehicular capacity is to remove traffic lights and other controls, such as stop signs and the white and yellow lines dividing streets into lanes. Without any clear right-of-way, he says, motorists are forced to slow down to safer speeds; make eye contact with pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers; and decide among themselves when it is safe to proceed.

Removing traditional signals can be scary or disturbing. A first step is often replacing intersections with traffic circles, or roundabouts. Those of us who have lived in the northeast United States know they are fairly common, but here on the West Coast they’re still rare.

A few years ago my small town of 10,000 replaced a complex five-way intersection with a traffic circle. Believe it or not, that circle reduced the number of stop lights in our town by 33 percent—from three to two. Even though the number of traffic accidents dropped to about zero and flow is far smoother, the community remains very divided. I personally love it, and zip through the circle at least a couple times a day.

Now the city wants to replace one of the two remaining lights with another traffic circle. Once again it makes a lot of sense because the intersection being considered is complex—three streets plus the on-and-off ramps for the Pacific Coast Highway. One issue is that it is a half-block from the high school, and some residents are concerned about kids walking and driving near a “dangerous circle.”

We have part of the community that has looked at the science described above, as well as the improved results from our first traffic circle, and are proponents of the new circle. And we have another part that is analyzing the proposal on a more emotional level, often based on a handful of anecdotal close calls with the existing traffic circle, and legitimate and understandable concern about our school kids. I don’t know what the city will decide.

It strikes me that this is similar to what many of us have gone through with lean transformations. Traditional batch manufacturing makes sense, and one-piece flow feels counterintuitive. Even after seeing it in action, perhaps even something as “real” as the envelope-stuffing exercise, dishwasher kaizen, or lean bathroom, it sometimes just doesn’t seem right.

Similarly, many organizations like having detailed and inflexible controls to ensure employees stay on the straight and narrow. Innovative organizations like Netflix (and Gemba Academy) intentionally remove policies and procedures to create more employee engagement. Removing controls makes people think and be more aware of their environment.

Where does your organization have traditional signals that need to be replaced by free-flowing, people-engaging, roundabouts?

First published Oct. 14, 2017, on Kevin Meyer’s website.


About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.


traffic flow

i like that you raise the point that the circles kind of divide the drivers into us and them. near me in ann arbor and brighton michigan about 10 years ago there were several traffic circles installed.  Three were at a high traffic area where US 23 intersects with road that has two shopping malls. till this day whenever the topic of those circles comes up the opinions are greatly polarized. those circles are more complex, with on ramp and off ramp connections.  i have missed my proper exit from them a couple times before i figured them out. they do engage the drivers, and i personally like that. 

the other three were on a two lane road (Maple) that passed in front of a new major high school in ann arbor, skyline. one of the circles is half a block away from the school.. the freeway M14 exits onto Maple there.  it creates an easily crossable intersection because all the drivers have to slow down to 20 to take the circle. i have walked and biked through it hundreds of times, and find it very safe. most of the drivers stop and let pedestrians cross, even though they have the right of way. 

now, my workplace used to be much more like circles, and then we were bought by a much larger company, and have been becoming more and more rigid. i much prefer the flow than the rigidity. everyone there who couldn't handle the flow usually weeding themseleves out in a couple months., it's not for everyone. now it is the opposite, where peole who prefer rigidity are more at home, and a copule of my flow loving colleagues are being chastized by management for overstepping boundaries that didn't used to exist.