January 30, 2023 ☼ The Intersection ☼ infrastructure ☼ policy design
Design, organisation and behaviour are three vertices of good public infrastructure. Improving one can improve overall outcomes but improving all three is necessary if we desire sustainable changes.
This is an unedited draft of my The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.
After physical improvements, our highways need better management and motorist behavior
Soon after we hit the national highway, by new car began to emit an unsettling beeping sound. I confirmed that the seat belts were on, all doors were securely locked, the fuel gauge showed a nearly full tank and even that the fog lights were off, but the beeping would come up every now and then. It was a few minutes later that I realised that the car sounded the beep whenever I crossed 80 kmph and the warning notes would intensify at higher speeds. Someone in the back seat Googled this up and found that audible speed warnings were mandatory in new cars. This was in late 2019. The kids decided that Nitin Gadkari, the Union minister who pushed this regulation, was admonishing his namesake and duly named it the Gadkari Nudge. Since I often crossed the 80kmph mark (along stretches where the speed limit is 100 kmph) the family had a good laugh every time the alert sounded.
At the time I found the beeps irritating and patronising. On more recent road trips though I discovered that not only had I gotten used to them, but I frequently found them useful. The beeps may not prevent speed-junkies from pressing the accelerator down on our nice new highways, but it is likely — at the margin — to remind safety conscious drivers that they have crossed 80kmph and 100kmph marks. After the tragic accident that killed Cyrus Mistry last year, Mr Gadkari announced new mandatory beeps — for rear seatbelts, another useful nag nudge.
The beeps are an attempt to use technology to change behaviour. All else being equal, marginal improvement in behaviour can yield better outcomes. Over the past decade, tbehavioural economics has thrown up a number of suggestions this can be done. The actual record is mixed though — especially in hyperdiverse India — but such interventions are a useful tool in our public policy toolkit. It’s important to use psychology cautiously, for a nudge too far can unduly violate individual liberty, undermine human agency and shift responsibility away from where it ought to belong.
When it comes to efficiency, safety and user experience of infrastructure such as roads, airports, railways, shopping malls, online services and so on, behaviour is only one vertex of a triangle. The other two important factors are design and organisation. It is only when these vertices are optimised and in harmony do we get the best possible outcomes. In other words, even the best behaviour goes so far if the infrastructure is poorly designed or its use poorly organised. We need to fix all three.
There have been marginal improvements in traffic movement after a new top-ranked police officer was apponted as special commissioner for traffic, in late 2022. There is still a lot of improvement possible, but unless the triangle is rebalanced, police enforcement will be difficult to sustain.
Bengaluru’s roads score poorly on all three dimensions. Design — the network is poorly designed, the surfaces are uneven, lanes poorly marked. Organisation — unclear division of responsibilities, driving licenses don’t really test for knowledge, and traffic rules are enforced sporadically. Behaviour — unconcerned with personal safety, poor compliance with rules. Fixing this requires attention to all three factors, for traffic is a complex adaptive system and merely pushing on one front might improves matters a little in the short term, but will eventually have unpredictable effects.
Sikkim’s roads present a different story. Driving on those spectacular, narrow but well-surfaced roads, I noticed that the drivers were considerate towards each other, complied with the few rules that were applicable there and had a number of informal norms for efficient and safe motoring. A combination of strong social capital and severe consequences of risky behaviour is perhaps responsible for relatively well-organised and well-behaved traffic. Even so, it shows what is possible even in the face of acute design constraints.
If you are familiar with Mysore, you know which restaurant I’m referring to.
A couple of weeks ago I visited a famous old Andhra restaurant in Mysuru after a gap of a few years and was pleasantly surprised to see that they had not only renovated the interiors but reorganised their floor operations. Instead of a crowd at the entrance and people impatiently standing near tables, there was a person to take down names and assign queue numbers. There was a waiting area. The service staff were well-organised and very efficient. Even if the customers had retained their old habits, they had few opportunities to act on them. This small establishment had managed to get all three edges of the triangle right.
The drive back to Bengaluru on the excellent, almost-complete highway, was marred by the usual slow-moving trucks driving in the middle and fast lanes. This not only slows everyone down but is a serious risk to safety. Bengaluru’s perimetric NICE Road is like an old video game where you can have to skilfully avoid heavy trucks crawling in all lanes. Except that in real life, we only live once.
I wonder if the energetic Mr Gadkari and his ministry can do something to get heavy vehicles to keep to the left-most lane, at least on the national highways. A combination of technology-driven enforcement and GPS-driven beeps, perhaps? Our national highways have physically improved in the past decade, even if there are spots of bad design in some places. However, unless we upgrade the way the highway system is organised, and change drivers’ behaviour, our outcomes will be sub-optimal.
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