Sunday, February 01, 2009

Innovative traffic solutions: mime ...

I have this friend who is from Bogota, so it should only be natural that when I see something about Bogota in the news, in a magazine or on the Internet, I linger a little longer.

So last week, I was reading this article in Newsweek discussing the danger of Obama's "change"-program getting compromised from the start by the nomination of Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary, Geithner, as we may remember, who's reputation recently got a little tarnished for "forgetting" to pay some taxes. The article calls for Obama to set the tone right from the beginning and warns for cutting corners. The cut from the past has to be clean:

Changing an equilibrium of corruption—or of anything else—is extremely difficult because it's so costly to be the odd person out. As a result, everyone has to make the switch all at once. Imagine what would happen if a country tried to switch from driving on the right to driving on the left through gradual change. Mismatched expectations about the rules of the road would quickly lead to chaos, fender benders and even a reversion to the old "equilibrium" by the few early left-siders.

The author does not underestimate the difficulty in reversing the established course of things, but refuses to see it as impossible and thereby finds inspiration in what happened in Bogota in the nineties.

The change may be difficult, but not impossible. Perhaps the new administration can take inspiration from the transformation of Bogotá in the early 1990s. At the time, the city was the murder capital of the world and still reeling from the legacy of Pablo Escobar and the drug wars of the previous decade. In 1994, Bogotános elected Antanas Mockus, a former philosophy professor, to bring order to this landscape of urban chaos.

Now Antanas Mockus apparently was not the most obvious choice for becoming Mayor of a metropole like Bogota. A philosopher, artist and math professor all in one, he gained his first five minutes of fame when he bared his buttocks for an auditorium of art students to get them to calm down:

The gesture, he said at the time, should be understood "as a part of the resources which an artist can use."

Far more interesting however is what he actually did to the traffic in Bogota, which seems to have been utter chaos at the time (see where I'm coming to ?). Where I live, we see traffic camera's going up in big numbers ? Been speeding ? FLASH !! Got the sun in your eyes and didn't see the light turn red ? FLASH !! Ticket follows a month later ... no way you'll get away with anything less than 25 Euro's and the above delicts are sure to drive you over 50 Euro's. It works, I must say, but it's still a repressive system. So very much unlike what our friend Mockus came up with:

Another innovative idea was to use mimes to improve both traffic and citizens' behavior. Initially 20 professional mimes shadowed pedestrians who didn't follow crossing rules: A pedestrian running across the road would be tracked by a mime who mocked his every move. Mimes also poked fun at reckless drivers. The program was so popular that another 400 people were trained as mimes.

"It was a pacifist counterweight," Mockus said. "With neither words nor weapons, the mimes were doubly unarmed. My goal was to show the importance of cultural regulations."

Mimes ??? What the hell ??? But come to think of it and it has that touch of genius. Just imagine how you behave when someone is trying to make fun of you, even such gentle fun as mimicry, in front of a crowd. You try to get your act together, the sooner the better.

In the period between 1993 and 2003, traffic fatalities per 100.000 inhabitants in Bogota dropped from 1300 to 600. I'm not sure on how that compares to the more "repressive" ways I see implemented here, but in the series of innovative ideas, this one is sure to score high.

And so I was thinking ... China ! What ingredients do we require ?
Big cities. Check.
Chaotic traffic. Check.
Willingness to learn. Check !
Reading these articles on Mayor Mockus, I wondered if his idea could be implemented in some of the big cities in China. The country is actually the only one where I have been to that has a "special task force" beside the police to bring some rule in the often (very) unruly traffic: the retired people at the crossroads with the cap and a whistle. Now it's been two years since I was last in China, so I may not have witnessed some changes that may already have taken place, but in my memory those people's authority -sorry as I feel for them, having to do that kind of job to earn a buck after their retirement- is a joke. More often than not neglected, not able to reprimand a culprit for mostly the culprit's are much faster than they are, in fact they're a sorry sight. So could the mimes work as an alternative ? I used to often take groups of Chinese that visited our company to some of the nearby big cities and it was not seldom we ran into one of those "statues", either completely immobile, or sometimes scaring the hell out of little kids or nice looking girls by a sudden blink of an eye, or the slightest movement of their hand towards the onlooker. I noticed my fellow travel companions always went over to take a look and of course ... take the obligatory picture. So mime seems to be something that could capture their attention. Add to that the chinese fear of loosing face in front of "the rest", so how powerful could a mime, imitating your every move when you yet again break a traffic rule, be ? Pretty powerful, I would think so. And when Marcel Marceau died, he didn't go unnoticed by the Chinese press. So, worth a try ?

By any means, read this entire article on Bogota's unconventional Mayor. If only half of what the article pretends him to be were true, this would be a guy I would like to meet. And I wouldn't mind seeing for instance Sam's analysis of this "governing by example" as I definitely feel a flavour of Mencius and Confucius in there.


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