Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Road-Sharing Lessons from Faraway Places

There’s a secret order to the way traffic moves in African cities — less regulated, more spontaneous.

Traffic in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, where the roads have had a wild west atmosphere. The road system was developed when the city had 350,000 inhabitants. But over 4 million live there today and infrastructure hasn’t kept up, with minimal traffic signs and lights.
This is the first of two articles about traffic in the Global South.

I’m traveling through Africa as part of an 18-month tour to study cities in the Global South. It’s a different world over here, although one thing reminds me of home — traffic. But the way African cities approach traffic control is different from the U.S. — less regulated and more spontaneous. It may be a mindset for U.S. cities to embrace.

I've found such "ordered chaos" in traffic in every African city I visit, but will focus on two divergent examples: Johannesburg and Nairobi.

Johannesburg, more than most African cities, is modern like those in the west, with skyscrapers and standardized planning. Driving in Johannesburg means adhering to lots of road signs and traffic lights.

At least until “load shedding” kicks in.

All of South Africa, including Johannesburg, is experiencing an energy crisis. The state-owned power company has enough electricity to supply only half the country’s needs. So it schedules blackouts, typically in two hour blocks, sometimes twice daily.

Many Johannesburg businesses have generators that kick in during the blackouts, but public infrastructure such as traffic signals are turned off. Rampant theft of copper wire and scrap metal within those signals also means many don’t work even outside of scheduled load-shedding blackouts.

Here’s what’s intriguing: Despite the lack of signals, roads seem to work better. Just as in the U.S., a broken traffic light becomes a stop sign. Drivers and pedestrians cooperate the way they do at four-way stops. Drivers are more aware of their surroundings and slow down instead of speeding through lights.

Even in congested traffic, drivers seem to get places faster due to the lack of signals. Just note this video I shot during rush hour in the crowded Sandton business district. Drivers flow through the intersection rather than having to wait several minutes at a light.

Johannesburg residents have also come up with creative ways to deal with the absence of traffic lights. Police are supposed to direct traffic when lights are out, but there aren’t enough to cover every intersection. So the homeless, street vendors and some ordinary people take matters into their own hands, directing traffic in exchange for tips from drivers. The police say they “do a commendable job." Johannesburg, in response to these circumstances, is now installing more stop signs in place of traffic lights.

An African city on the opposite end of the spectrum is Nairobi. There, roads have had a wild west atmosphere all along. The road system was developed when the city had 350,000 inhabitants. But over 4 million live there today and infrastructure hasn’t kept up, with minimal traffic signs and lights. There is also a culture in Kenya of ignoring traffic rules, which are perceived as a holdover from colonial times, when people were prevented from moving freely. But here too, the apparent disorder is more harmonious than in many U.S. cities.

I was amazed by one intersection in Nairobi’s Westlands neighborhood. The through road fed onto a major highway and had thousands of cars passing each hour. But thousands of pedestrians also cross the road. They walk right out into it without delay, and drivers know to either stop or go around them.

The U.S. had similar road harmony back when cars were first introduced. A video of San Francisco in 1906 shows Market Street bustling with pedestrians, cars, horse-drawn carriages and cable cars. No one is directing traffic, there are no signs, pedestrians walk in front of moving vehicles, and cars and carriages make left hand turns whenever they want. But everyone moves slowly, aware of their surroundings.

Nairobi is an even more crowded version of that. And while it leads to a tension — a perpetual tug-and-pull between pedestrians, motorbikes, cars and buses — the upside is that all parties get where they want faster.

There are some qualifiers to make before I would recommend this for U.S. cities. First is that the superior flow resulting from unplanning hasn't “solved traffic” in African cities. Johannesburg and Nairobi are congested like U.S. ones, the product of larger spatial dynamics that go beyond what occurs at any one intersection. I’ll address that in next month's column. Second is that pedestrian deaths are much higher in Africa partly because of its chaotic traffic approach. It’s not a friendly environment for kids, the disabled or anyone else too vulnerable to walk between moving cars. But the cars do move at a less glacial pace.

The U.S. can learn from this model — if it’s done right.

Data suggests that removing traffic lights can make people safer. In the Netherlands, a traffic engineer removed a light and replaced it with a traffic circle. He believed drivers would pay more attention without the light. After two years, accidents plummeted and traffic moved faster.

American cities have tried similar experiments. Montgomery, Ala., converted a downtown intersection into a cobblestone plaza where cars, bikes and pedestrians share the road. “The more uncomfortable the driver feels,” explained Chris Conway, a Montgomery traffic engineer, “the more he is forced to make eye contact on the street with pedestrians, other drivers and to intuitively go slower.”

Replacing traffic lights with signs and roundabouts also saves money. And it fosters freedom of movement — what traffic engineers call throughput — a point backed by academic literature. Due to these factors, signal-free road design is already happening in some U.S. towns and suburbs. It could be applied in select parts of big cities, but with more pedestrian safeguards built in to hedge against the associated risks.

People may see in African traffic chaos a sign of dysfunction. But there's more to it than meets the eye. When people don’t depend on rules, signs and signals, they look at each other, working off informal behavioral cues built into the social contract. The outcome seems to be a better alternative than waiting at lights.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
From Our Partners