The traffic was thick, as it usually is on Friday afternoons in Atlanta. But it was moving even slower than usual.
That’s when I knew my “favorite” traffic cop was working — and when I had an epiphany about one of America’s great, ongoing debates.
Seemingly every afternoon, this officer stands beneath the traffic light at Lenox Road and Tower Place, on the Buckhead Loop. Some days the traffic flows, and he doesn’t have much to do. Some days it doesn’t, and he does.
When he does, he typically makes matters worse for those (like me) traveling westbound from the Ga. 400 exit ramp to Piedmont Road.
On this particular Friday, we the westbound were not moving. Twenty minutes after turning off the 400 exit ramp, I still hadn’t cleared the intersection two-tenths of a mile away.
Now, most metro Atlanta commuters have experienced nightmarish traffic. My story’s no worse than theirs, and my epiphany wasn’t about whether the T-SPLOST would have solved this problem (nope) or what “Plan B” ought to be.
It was about regulation, in all its forms.
You see, there’s a reason traffic cops stand at intersections like that one. When the traffic gets thick enough, the drivers can’t, or won’t, self-regulate.
I’ve seen it at other intersections, such as one on Hammond Road near the AJC’s offices. Traffic would flow nicely in both directions on the side street if it weren’t for the folks on Hammond who, I guess, tire of waiting for the cars in front of them to move and pull into the intersection even though they have no chance of clearing it. They’re stuck there once the light turns red, blocking cars on the side street that would have moved if the intersection were clear.
For whatever reason — selfishness, frustration, ignorance — the market of motorists at that intersection has failed. A familiar cry goes up: We need more regulation!
That’s presumably what happened on the Buckhead Loop, too. Thus, a traffic cop is there to keep the intersection from being blocked. He regulates that little market, ensuring there’s an even driving, er, playing field for motorists on the main and side streets.
Only, it doesn’t work that way.
Instead, as regulators often do, this particular officer ends up tilting matters the other way: in favor of the side-street drivers.
He often allows only a few cars per lane on Lenox to clear the intersection before stopping the rest. There may be room for five or six more cars per lane, but he stops them where they are.
Now, it’s true he has to do this in part due to a regulatory failure down the road, at the intersection of Lenox and Piedmont. The lights aren’t synchronized to keep cars moving once they pass him, and he needs to maintain some space for the side-street drivers.
But where he usually goes wrong — most egregiously on that recent Friday afternoon — is in letting cars from the side street impede traffic on the main road. They fill the road past the intersection, keeping cars on Lenox at bay and backing up traffic down the 400 ramp and even back toward Peachtree.
So the flow of traffic ends up being just as bad as when it was self-regulated. The only difference is which group is disadvantaged. As is often the case with regulation, the advantage has swung from the many to a privileged few.
They’re privileged, you see, because this officer is not working on the city’s time. He’s hired off-duty by an office building on one side of Lenox Road. And his actions make clear whose interests he serves.
Not just his actions, but his words. On that Friday afternoon, as I finally crossed the intersection about 20 feet away from him, I rolled down my window and, as calmly as I could manage, said, “Why don’t you stop them” — pointing at the side street — “every once in a while?”
His response, in its entirety, was: “Nya-nya-nya-nya-nya-nya-nya!”
So, to the rest of our example, add disdain for the regulated.
Is some regulation necessary here? Probably. Does the market work any better after being so regulated? Only for those who get to shape the regulation.
Do I ever make it home on Fridays? (Sigh.) Eventually.