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.

Click to expand.

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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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.