Driven Round The Bend

My street is what is commonly known as a rat run, and the meaning of this is evident as the rush hour in Edinburgh accelerates to a peak at around half past eight in the morning. Since the street runs parallel to and in between the two main western roads feeding into the city centre, it is the natural choice for impatient drivers on these often jammed thoroughfares to take the quieter route down our humble little way.

Naturally, this results in a noisier and less safe street for residents and their children and feelings have been made known to local politicians years before I moved into the area and still with no action firmly taken.

Furthermore, it is no surprise that residents have displayed their anger for so long when they know that the local government tax band they pay (called the council tax and which is proportional to house value) is the second highest for Edinburgh and yet they get nothing in return at a specifically local level.

So, let me tell you why socialism and democracy have conspired together to ensure that this very local issue will never get beyond an apology from our locally elected city councillor.

The best solution is evident to the average resident; install speed restrictors such as speed bumps on the street. With such a solution in mind, we all made our way to the local primary school one August evening to hear what our councillor and the transport chief for Edinburgh City Council had to say on this matter. To my surprise, over 300 hundred people turned out; I didn't realise such an unexciting issue stirred up such interest. Moreover, going by the echoes of guffaws and grumbles from malcontents, it not only stirred up an interest but a noticeable passion as well.

To put us all immediately in the picture, we were told there was no cash in the council budget to fund the best solutions of bumps or chicanes (murmurs start).

It was then revealed that the only financially viable solution was to restrict entry to the street (murmurs rise).

It was further revealed that this would also necessitate the same measures on streets further down the hill towards the main artery roads (counter-murmurs rise).

It was finally revealed that since there were several restricted entry solutions, these would have to be put to a vote to decide which one would carry the day (murmurs reach crescendo).

Now, the reason why the verbal protests had reached the shouting level at this point was because this was not the first time a vote had been carried out. All previous votes had ended in no one solution being a clear winner and thus ending in stalemate.

The reason for the previous impasses also explained why there were so many people at that meeting — residents from other streets had been invited to the meeting and they had also been allowed to vote on ballots for previously proposed solutions. Why were the votes not restricted to the residents of my street?

This is what may be called electoral collectivism. In socialist terms, the street I live in is effectively owned by everyone and especially with those within an increasingly closer distance to it. Since it is impractical to ask everyone in Edinburgh what to do with the street, the electorate is narrowed down to those who also connect to the main roads within a radius of several hundred yards.

Unwittingly or otherwise, this is where the conflict of democratic socialism and human nature began to be exposed. Pose the simple choice to everyone within 300 yards of the street to maintain the status quo or implement the good old socialist dogma of traffic redistribution and the outcome is not too difficult to guess.

Like wealth redistribution, you only vote for traffic redistribution if it is to your advantage. In other words, the residents one or two streets down are libertarians when it comes to voting the quietness out of one street into another's street! Come to think of it, I would probably vote that way myself.

Such a vote will never get anywhere; but what if the residents of my street were given weighted votes? Alas, another impasse in democratic socialism is encountered when it is realised that the local politician would decide the weighting and would effectively be asking himself one very important question:

How many voters will I upset in the next election if I give this minority vote too much weighting?

Therefore, there is no weighting and we will be kept waiting for a solution. Such are the vagaries of local democracy allied with socialism.

Nevertheless, I dutifully visited the local library a few weeks later to view a display of all the restriction options and vote for what I considered the best options. A few further weeks later and the ballot papers came through the post with two voting options; restriction option A or keep the status quo.

I voted for restriction option A and I still await word from the local councillor several months later. That is not a good sign.

Going back to that cacophonic meeting at the local school, yours truly entered the fray as the local and friendly neighbourhood libertarian.

Libertarian: “Councillor, how much would it cost to install speed bumps at private cost?”

Socialist: “1000 per bump and at a regulatory 100 metres apart.”

Libertarian: “Is there any reason why we cannot do this as private residents?”

Socialist: “Yes, it would be unfair on the other streets!”

That is as much as I got in before the next question was shouted out. I don't think the crowd realised what I had said; I think they did not see past the obligations they assume are incumbent upon those politicians whose salaries they indirectly pay for.

Let me indulge in some simple arithmetic. My street is about 900 metres long giving a requirement for 9 speed bumps at a cost of 9000 to install. With about 120 houses on the street, that gives an average of 75 per household to raise for the initial costs. Thereafter, an annual or occasional cost is incurred for maintenance purposes. This should not be surrealistic stuff to many folk who were once flat occupiers and had to contribute money to their residents associations to pay for common costs such as roof repairs, maintenance of communal ground and street lighting.

Now, imagine the scenario where the chains of democratic socialism are loosed and Edinburgh City Council hands over the street with a large local tax rebate and says, “You look after it!”. Of course, now it would not matter a whit what the other streets thought; in go those lovely speed bumps.

It is a wonder of laissez-faire decision making how these things create a ripple effect and before you know it, all streets within the square formed by my street, the two perpendicular main roads and the parallel main road all have speed bumps!

Problem solved. Drivers are deterred from rat running through back streets and residents are happy. Thanks to innovation and competition brought on by the birth of the residential street improvement business sector, customer streets have a choice of various car deterrents and more likely than not, speed bumps will cost significantly less than 1000 each.

Our critics may scoff at this scenario and unsettle us with scenes of streets being totally blocked off by xenophobic residents. Well, let us imagine that a street does install infrared actuated entry barriers at each end. There are various reasons why such a scenario is unlikely:

  • Such a scheme may require a huge majority vote due to its unusual nature.
  • Those who did not vote for it may not pay and thus deter other from paying the larger cost.
  • Peer pressure from “normal” streets and local communities may ensue.
  • The threat of litigation from someone if a fire engine or ambulance was hindered from an emergency will deter such a plan.

If the street was on the edge of an area known for rioting then one may accept such a scenario, for in this we see how individual liberty summed up at the neighbourhood level allows the quickest response to the current socio-economic status of the region.

In our locale, there is no chance of rioting or xenophobia, so the interplay of social and economic forces will find its equilibrium in rather more mundane solutions such as speed bumps.

Well, there is a small chance of rioting if one attends certain meetings at local primary schools in August evenings.

June 25, 2001

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