The streets of Bucharest: How road behaviour correlates with trust in government

Bucharest: well at least these guys are behaving. Image: Getty.

Editor's note: We added a few paragraphs to the end of this story at 23:25hrs, after readers pointed out some errors in our original data. 

Getting behind the wheel of a car and taking to the streets of Bucharest is not for the faint hearted. I’ve just returned from a few days in Romania, and at times it felt like the locals took their driving lessons in Grand Theft Auto.

Cars would pass incredibly close and at high speed; traffic lights would be like starting blocks, with five cars positioning themselves side-by-side to compete to slot into two lanes of traffic; and, of course, there was little risk of the indicator bulbs ever burning out. It’s no wonder that, according to the FCO, in 2013 Romania experienced 9.3 road deaths per 100,000 people, compared to just 2.8 in the UK.

Coincidentally, I have also been reading the 2012 book Why Nations Fail, a treatise arguing that the key to economic progress is down to a country’s institutions. Economic growth, the authors believe, only happens when political and economic institutions are “inclusive” instead of “extractive”.

In other words, countries succeed when their economies aren’t based upon the exploitation of the people by a small group of elites, and where there are political mechanisms that help exploit talent and ideas. In that way, anyone who invents a new technology or a more efficient method of producing something knows that the fruits of their labour won’t just be expropriated by a dictator. This requires both a state strong enough to enforce the rules (a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, in the jargon), and also a state that is also bounded by the same rules and unable to act arbitrarily: a respect for “Rule of Law”.

And it was just as a Dacia Duster thundered in front of me, crossing precariously close to my front bumper as it moved from the outer to the inner lane of a three-lane highway, that I wondered if the mayhem on Romania’s roads might also be able to tell us something about its development.

Crunching the Numbers

To find out, I took the World Health Organisation’s 2013 data on road deaths per 100,000 people in different countries (which seems a sensible proxy for quality of driving), and compared it to the scores given by the World Justice Project on Rule of Law in 2015. This latter score is generated by surveying 100,000 people and 2,400 experts on 44 indicators like the openness of government, corruption, fundamental rights and justice. 

Pairing up the 94 countries that are included in both datasets, it reveals that – amazingly – there appears to be a correlation between the two. For the stats nerds out there, that’s a Pearson correlation coefficient of -0.68.

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Comparing traffic data to how much citizens trust each other [see correction, below] creates an even more striking correlation. Using data collected by the OECD, it reveals a correlation of -0.81.

Click to expand.

So it does really appear as though the craziness of a nation’s motorists may tell us something bigger. This hypothesis might also explain why on my last trip to Lithuania, a country that has a similarly troubled past, drivers seem to treat the hard shoulder as an overtaking lane.


What does it mean?

Romania has had a tumultuous history, thanks to Communism and the excesses of former President Nicolae Ceausescu, a man who in his later years took his inspiration from North Korea. Since the revolution in 1989, the country is now a functioning democracy and a member of the EU and NATO, but it still isn’t quite on the same level as western Europe: according to the 2013 score given by the World Justice Project for rule of law, Romania only scores around 62 per cent. (Britain is up on 78 per cent, and Norway wins with 86 per cent. Afghanistan is on 35 per cent.)

This data suggests that such numbers are mirrored in the roads. Traffic cops are very visible in downtime Bucharest, but it appears that few motorists worry about them: rule breaking is so endemic, they are clearly unable to fully enforce the law. (The “state” in this analogy isn’t strong enough to enforce them). The aggressive driving might also suggest that motorists have little faith that others are likely to respect the supposed rules.

This isn’t to imply that correlation means causation: there is also a correlation with average income, for instance, but both of these things are essentially measures of how successful a country is. And of course, we shouldn’t rule out that it could just be one massive coincidence.

But in any case, at least on this initial glance, it certainly appears that there is a link between the two, whether they are causally related or whether they are merely outcomes of the same parent phenomenon. If I’m right, and this isn’t a coincidence, then it suggests that the state of a country’s roads could also act as a neat heuristic for understanding the quality of a country’s government.

And this kind of makes sense too, as roads are almost a perfect microcosm of what states do on a larger scale. On a road network, you have many different actors all behaving in a self-interested manner, trying to reach their own goals – and in order to manage this efficiently, there are rules in place to try to try and make the whole thing more efficient. If, for some reason, people decide not to follow these rules, then the whole thing breaks down – and the result is chaos.

A correction, of sorts

I originally interpreted the OECD data in the second graph above as a measure of trust in government. But since this post went viral, some far more knowledgeable people have double-checked my data and spotted that this was an error. A reporter from Quartz correctly identified that the OECD trust data was in fact a measure of trust in other people.

The first comparison, on data from the World Justice Project still supports my interpretation – so the general thrust of the piece, in my view, remains correct (all standard caveats about causation excepted).

And even the OECD data in the next chart also conceivably tells us something interesting about government, albeit at one order further removed than we thought. What this data tells us is which societies are culturally low trust, and which are high trust. I think it would be reasonable to hypothesise would be itself closely correlated with trust in institutions – somethingy backed up by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (p43-45).

So though it involves jumping through an extra hoop, I’m fairly sure this interpretation of the data holds up.

James O'Malley tweets as @psythor.

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“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.