Cairo has the worst traffic in the world. You can look at various surveys that will disagree with that claim, and I’m sure there are cities with quantitatively more cars per square foot or whatever, but trust me, Cairo is qualitatively worse, for two reasons. The first is that the infrastructure is pathetic. Roads are pitted with potholes, bridges are rickety, lanes are routinely closed for repairs that never happen, etc. The second, and worse, factor is that the rule of law is entirely absent. Lanes are merely abstract concepts, accidents not involving fatalities are barely worth slowing down for and there are no policeman to be found anywhere. This kind of disregard for the traffic system shows how little organization and respect the government has for its people.
My wife Jess’s take was that a country whose social contract was this broken would have a hard time ever getting its act together. And she was right. My own view is that this revolution, though it will be as messy as revolutions always are, will lay the groundwork for building a society where entrepreneurs can in fact do their thing.
The problem isn’t the government; the people are the problem. Polite people with social capital don’t need the rule of law. In Egypt, the Christian protesters protected the Muslims, and vice versa; and they cleaned the trash from the streets after the government fell; but once the euphoria of the shared purpose has ended, will they continue to treat their neighbors with respect?
Where Do Polite People Live?
I lived in Santa Clara County, California, before the 1995-2000 technology bubble. One day the electricity died, including street signals, and drivers were forced to fend for themselves. It was anarchy. The people responded by politely alternating and everyone crossed the intersection with a reasonable delay without gridlock, even in rush hour. I doubt this would happen in California today because the asset bubbles in technology and real estate have attracted courser people; nor would it happen in Cairo, Boston, or Argentina, where I am on vacation.
I’ve been to about a dozen countries and the United States is the only one where I can imagine people not creating gridlock at a busy city intersection, and even there I suspect that at least half the cities would be paralyzed.
How Can Politeness Be Measured?
Allstate Insurance keeps a database of the rates it charges to drivers in various cities based on how often people smash their cars into trees, signposts, and their neighbors’ cars. I lived in Fort Collins, Colorado for many years, the second cheapest place in the USA to ensure a car. If you’re considering relocating to a city in the United States, a call to Allstate could give you valuable info about whether you’d enjoy your new home. People who are polite on the road are polite in other places, too.
Drivers in Santiago are better than Boston and Bariloche, but worse than Fort Collins and Santa Monica.
I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon where many women in Santiago ride bike paths alone after dark, unlike some USA cities. Perhaps crime is rare in Santiago, or women are as tough as Boston Irish and thus confident that they can defend themselves, or a little of both.