Friday, May 09, 2008

Mixed messages

Last night I drove into the traffic hell that is Canary Wharf to see a play by the marvellous Shifting Sands in a rather nice little theatre marooned on the Isle of Dogs. (I would advertise it, but this is the end of their run. I’m collaborating with Shifting Sands on a production early next year based on the life of Paracelsus and funded by the Wellcome Trust.)

I’ve never ventured into E14 by car before, for good reason. Here is a traffic system that radiates sneering contempt, confronting you with a morass of flyovers, tunnels and slip roads labelled only with signs saying things like ‘Canary Wharf Depot A’. One wrong turn and I was in a tunnel that offered no escape until it spat me back out at the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

My point is this. You emerge, dazed, anxious and disorientated, from some underground cavern to find yourself on a busy roundabout, and in the middle is the structure shown above. Traffic lights point in all directions; some beckon in green, some prohibit in red, some tantalize in amber.

‘You can’t be serious’, I muttered, and several moments passed before I twigged that indeed this is not a serious device for directing traffic, but, can you credit it, an art installation. At least, I could only assume so, but I decided to quiz the bar attendant at the theatre. She professed ignorance of the roads, but a local bloke sitting at the bar chipped in. The installation cost £140,000, he said, and he was living in a flat that overlooked it when it was first installed. ‘I’ve never seen so many accidents’, he said.

The stupidity of it is so breathtaking that it is almost a work of conceptual art itself. I try to picture the local council meeting at which the design was proposed. ‘Yes, I want to use real traffic lights. By utterly confusing and bewildering the driver, you see, it will make a comment on the complexity of everyday life.’ ‘Well, that sounds like a brilliant idea. Here’s 140 grand.’

This is all merely a slender excuse to advertise this nice preprint by Stefan Lämmer and Dirk Helbing on self-organized traffic lights that replace central control with autonomy. A self-organized approach could in principle let traffic flow considerably more efficiently, as I’ve discussed some time ago in a Nature article.

But I fear that E14 is beyond any redemption that self-organization can offer.

No comments: