Why the Scots Gave One of their Roads Wiggly Lines

Stirling Council had a problem. The A811 road between Stirling and Loch Lomond, Scotland, was overrun with speeding drivers breaking the 30 mph limit on the stretch of tarmac around Arnprior, a small village.

During an April 2013 meeting of the local council, the issue of traffic calming measures was debated. “Road markings plus additional traffic calming measures” were proposed near Arnprior. Sounds reasonable enough, right?

That's what Arnprior residents thought, until they viewed the resulting markings separating the route's two lanes. Rather than straight, even lines demarcating the direction of traffic, residents and drivers on the A811 were greeted by wiggly white lines that veered from side to side. The wavy markings weren't a mistake—they were deliberately painted that way in an attempt to slow down speeders.

Councillor Danny Gibson told The Daily Record, a Scottish newspaper, that “the center line markings are complemented by red road markings at the side. The combination influences driver behavior and encourages a reduction in vehicle speed. We have not been contacted by any local residents or road users to express any concerns about these markings.”

Local residents did complain to the press, though, and one opposition councillor said that the cost of painting the lines wonky, rather than straight, was 50 percent higher than normal.

The aim is to trick drivers into thinking that the road surface is uneven, and that they should slow down. But the optical illusion seems less than convincing.

The theory behind it is sensible, even if the way it was carried out wasn’t. A study by Leeds University found that vertical shifts in the carriageway—which the road markings were meant to mimic—reduce average driving speed by more than any other suggested traffic calming measure, including narrowing the width of a road. Simply put, people don’t want to risk their car going airborne by speeding too fast over the brow of a hill.

All of the resulting negative publicity, however, caused a new problem: Stirling Council’s illusion has been exposed. The road passing through Arnprior was revealed to not be bumpy at all—just wiggly. (Then again, we’re not wholly convinced anyone was really fooled in the first place.)

What’s more, the road markings intended to reduce speed and increase safety may in fact have had the opposite effect. The strange paintwork drew the world’s attention, and became something of a tourist attraction. 

Even so, the village of Wimborne, located in South West England's district of Dorset, tried to play a similar trick on its drivers last year, resulting in equally outraged residents. Realizing how unpopular their decision was, Wimborne's town council members were quick to reject the (wiggly) former party line. "After recent resurfacing work the lines were renewed, but the curve in the markings was more pronounced than it should have been," the council stated in a February 2014 release (via the BBC). "We have now corrected this and apologise for any problems this may have caused."  

Michael Gottschalk, AFP/Getty Images
Germany Wants to Fight Air Pollution With Free Public Transit
Michael Gottschalk, AFP/Getty Images
Michael Gottschalk, AFP/Getty Images

Getting people out of their cars is an essential part of combating climate change. By one estimate, getting people to ditch their two-car household for just one car and a public transit commute could save up to 30 percent in carbon dioxide emissions [PDF]. But how do you convince commuters to take the train or the bus? In Germany, the answer may be making all public transit free, according to The Local.

According to a letter from three of Germany's government ministers to the European Union Environment Commissioner, in 2018, Germany will test free public transit in five western German cities, including Bonn. Germany has failed to meet EU air pollution limits for several years, and has been warned that it could face heavy fines if the country doesn't clean up its air. In a report from 2017, the European Environment Agency estimated that 80,767 premature deaths in Germany in 2014 were due to air pollution.

City officials in the regions where free transport will be tested say there may be some difficulty getting ahold of enough electric buses to support the increase in ridership, though, and their systems will likely need more trains and bus lines to make the plan work.

Germany isn't the first to test out free public transportation, though it may be the first to do it on a nation-wide level. The Estonian capital of Tallinn tried in 2013, with less-than-stellar results. Ridership didn't surge as high as expected—one study found that the elimination of fares only resulted in a 1.2 percent increase in demand for service. And that doesn't necessarily mean that those new riders were jumping out of their cars, since those who would otherwise bike or walk might take the opportunity to hop on the bus more often if they don't have to load a transit card.

Transportation isn't prohibitively expensive in Germany, and Germans already ride public transit at much higher rates than people do in the U.S. In Berlin, it costs about $4 a ride—more expensive than a ride in Paris or Madrid but about what you'd pay in Geneva, and cheaper than the lowest fare in London. And there are already discounts for kids, students, and the elderly. While that doesn't necessarily mean making public transit free isn't worth it, it does mean that eliminating fares might not make the huge dent in car emissions that the government hopes it will.

What could bring in more riders? Improving existing service. According to research on transportation ridership, doing things like improving waits and transfer times bring in far more new riders than reducing fares. As one study puts it, "This seldom happens, however, since transport managers often cannot resist the idea of reducing passenger fares even though the practice is known to have less impact on ridership."

The same study notes that increasing the prices of other modes of transit (say, making road tolls and parking fees higher to make driving the more expensive choice) is a more effective way of forcing people out of their cars and onto trains and buses. But that tends to be more unpopular than just giving people free bus passes.

[h/t The Local]

Here's How Much Traffic Congestion Costs the World's Biggest Cities

Traffic congestion isn't just a nuisance for the people who get trapped in gridlock on their way to work, it’s also a problem for a city's economy, City Lab reports. According to a study from the transportation consulting firm INRIX, all that time stuck in traffic can cost the world’s major cities tens of billions of dollars each year.

The study, the largest to examine vehicle traffic on a global scale, measured congestion in 1360 cities across 38 countries. Los Angeles ranked number one internationally with drivers spending an average of 102 hours in traffic jams during peak times in a year. Moscow and New York City were close behind, both with 91 lost hours, followed by Sao Paulo in Brazil with 86 and San Francisco with 79.

INRIX also calculated the total cost to the cities based on their congestion numbers. While Los Angeles loses a whopping $19.2 billion a year to time wasted on the road, New York City takes the biggest hit. Traffic accounts for $33.7 billion lost by the city annually, or an average of $2982 per driver. The cost is $10.6 billion a year for San Francisco and $7.1 billion for Atlanta. Those figures are based on factors like the loss of productivity from workers stuck in their cars, higher road transportation costs, and the fuel burned by vehicles going nowhere.

Congestion on the highway can be caused by something as dramatic as a car crash or as minor as a nervous driver tapping their brakes too often. Driverless cars could eventually fix this problem, but until then, the fastest solution may be to discourage people from getting behind the wheel in the first place.

[h/t City Lab]


More from mental floss studios