Monday, December 31, 2007

Making matters worse.

The powers that be have no confidence in people to deal with problems well. They are convinced that they are needed to help us since we are not like them. In my experience their planning usually makes things worse. And I recently saw an example of this at a major U.S. airport.

It was late last night as we drove to the airport to pick up someone who was arriving. It was close to midnight which is not peak time at all. Yet the traffic to the pick up zone was backed up enough that it took about 15 minutes to travels two blocks. Yet when we got there the pick up zone was almost entirely empty except for the one far left lane where traffic was moving so very slowly.

There were normally three lanes in front of the terminal. The far right lane was against the curb and people would park there to load up luggage and their passenger. The center lane was typically used by individuals to drive past the terminal looking for the passenger. And the outside lane, which was useless for pick up purposes was used by people to travel past the terminal completely. No one decreed that this was how it would be but it made sense.

Now and then you’d get someone who would try to use the the curb as a parking lot but that wasn’t common. And there would be a traffic cop hanging around to either ticket a vehicle that stayed for more than 10 minutes or to tell the driver they were exceeding their time. Considering the potential chaos in a place like this things moved relatively smoothly. Most of the order was the result of drivers acting rationally with a small nudge, now and then, for those who would gum up the works. Not so last night.

The right and center lanes were almost empty. Throughout the airport there were little tyrants in uniform stationed about every 50 feet. Anyone who pulled up to the curb was immediately ordered to leave. They had cop cars blaring these fog horns at cars that stopped. If a passenger was standing at the curb with luggage in hand they could be picked up. But any sort of delay would bring immediate legal threats from these petty officials.

The cops had changed the rules of the game supposedly to make traffic move slower. In reality all they managed to do was cram all the cars into the far left lane. Individuals who would be at the curb normally were in the left lane and so were the people who would normally cruise past the terminal slowly looking for their passenger. Everyone trying to leave the terminals was in the third lane as well.

So three lanes of traffic were compressed into one lane while two lanes were basically empty. People trying to meet their passenger were intentionally driving very slowly to try to be there when their passenger exited the terminal. That resulted in huge back ups of traffic. And the huge back ups were inspired people to linger longer in order to find their passenger since no one wanted to be forced to the back of line again.

Previously you could leave the terminal and drive around to the entrance again in about five minutes. Now you had to wait about 15 minutes in line. Interference by the police had taken a system that worked relatively well and changed it into gridlock by changing the incentives. No one in the left lane previously was inspired to move at a crawl -- now they were. And since that was the only lane the combination of the extra traffic and the slower driving put the airport at almost a standstill.

As I stood there watching this I was surprised at how relentless the police were to go after anyone who dared stop for more than a few seconds. They successfully managed to keep two thirds of the space empty while cramming all the cars in the far left lane entirely screwing up the flow of traffic and creating a problem for everyone.

I told one of these cops that I thought they were making everything worse. He said they were under orders to keep the space immediately front of the terminal empty. Some faceless “they” had issued an order. I suspect the moron who issued the order neither has checked to see how it was working or had to meet a passenger. And if they did you can bet they would flash their badge and get special treatment.