The future of the left: So why do most countries drive on the right?

A road sign near Uluru/Ayers Rock reminding foreign drivers to keep left. Image: Joshua Aldrich/Wikimedia Commons.

All this week, our colleagues over at the New Statesman have been exploring an issue very close to that magazine’s heart: What does the future of the Left look like?

That, in all honest, is a debate to which CityMetric doesn’t feel it has much to contribute. So instead, in this article, we’re asking a different question:

What’s the future of the left? Y’know, the direction? The bit of the road where British people drive?

The rule of law

First thing’s first. Obviously it makes sense for a territory to pick one direction and stick to it. That way you don’t get people pootling happily over to the next village, where the rules are different, and promptly crashing into a car coming the other way.

Funnily enough, though, driving on one side of the road isn’t only a matter of common sense: it’s enshrined in the Geneva Convention. Not the Geneva Convention you’re thinking of, admittedly, but the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949) which requires its signatories to have a consistent rules. It’s a matter of law, as well as precedent.

A divided world

Here’s a map of which side of the road every country and territory in the world drives on. Blue is left, red is right.

As in US presidential politics, blue means left, red means right. Click to expand. Image: Benjamin D. Esham/Wikimedia Commons.

 

At first glance, it’s a sea of red with a few isolated outcrops of blue. Those include the British Isles, as well as swathes of territory once included in the British Empire (when it was, ironically, coloured pink on the maps): that accounts for much of the West Indies, southern Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Hong Kong and Australasia.

There are also a few other territories with no particular connection to British history, but which drive on the left all the same: Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Macau.

On a map this looks like a minority of the world. And it is, but – thanks largely to the presence of a few big countries, most notably India – it’s perhaps not as small a minority as one might expect. In all, about 65 per cent of the world’s population are in right-driving countries; the remaining 35 per cent are in left-driving ones.


Most of the world is doing it wrong

In most places, for most of history, driving on the left seems to have been standard (you can see this in the layout of cart tracks on Roman roads and so forth).

There’s a reason for this. Most people are right-handed, so by driving on the left, that’d place their stronger hand in the best position to greet those coming the other way, or whack them with a sword, as seemed most appropriate.

It made sense in other ways, too. Driving on the left meant that people leading horses could hold the reins in their right hand and walk at the edge of the road, which was least likely to be a sea of mud. Most people find it easier to mount a horse from its left, too.

Even in the age of the car, though, it seems to make sense to drive on the left. In most countries, cars are set up to put the driver’s seat in the centre of the road, to give them improved visibility: in other words, in left-driving countries, the driver’s seat is on the right.

That puts the right eye, which tends to be stronger, in a better position to see oncoming traffic. It also means that the left hand can change gear, and muck around with the radio and so forth, while the stronger right hand is the one that stays on the wheel.

Put this all together, and you end up with at least some evidence that it’s actually safer to drive on the left – though this is limited, and certainly not worth forcing 65 per cent of the world to change its roads for.

So why do most countries drive on the right?

Oh, not him again. 

 

The standard explanation for this is that it’s all Napoleon’s fault. He was left-handed, it’s said, and so was more comfortable on the right hand side of the road. And one of the things you get to do when you conquer most of Europe is make people drive how you want them to.

This seems to be a bit of a myth, however. While it was Napoleon’s empire that standardised much of Europe, there’s no evidence he was just being personally awkward. Some stories actually credit a revolutionary proclamation which argued that, because the aristocrats had rode on the left, the revolutionary thing to do would be to drive on the right.

No one seems to know for certain. And the US switched from left- to right-hand driving without any help from Napoleon – though again, whether this came about because of the mechanics of driving wagons that required several horses, or whether it was the work of standardisation-fan Henry Ford, is just as contested.

How do you switch sides?

The fact people drive on opposite sides of the road on either side of the English Channel, the Himalayas or the Sea of Japan doesn’t really matter much. Huge impassable natural features are generally a pretty good way of forcing people to think about which side of the road they’re meant to be on.

But there are land borders in the world where the rules switch suddenly. What then?

There are a number of options for changing a left hand road into a right hand road. One is using traffic lights, to ensure cars switching from right to left, and those switching from left to right, don’t meet noisily somewhere in the middle. Another is to have one way sections – roundabouts or crossover bridges or brief one-lane roads – to ensure that there is no point where the two lines will meet.

Vehicles entering Macau from mainland China use the curly wurly Lótus Bridge to switch from right- to left-hand drive. Image: BurnDuck/Wikimedia Commons.

 

In a few areas there are no controls at all – you just follow the signage and take your chances. That, though, generally only happens when traffic is low.

No, how do you switch sides?

While a number of countries have switched sides in the past – often with the help of an invading European army – it’s actually pretty rare these days. I mean, why bother?

Generally when it has happened, the direction of travel has been from left to right, to bring countries into line with most of the world. That happened with a trio of west African countries in the 1970s (Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone). On the other side of the continent, Rwanda and Burundi have talked about switching from right to left, to match their neighbours in the East African Community, though that’s been on the table for a decade without anything much being done.

The most recent country to make the switch was Samoa, which is all but unique in actually going from right to left. The former German colony made the decision so it could import cheap vehicles from the left-leaning New Zealand and Australia. In preparation, roads were widened; new signage, speed bumps and road markings introduced; the speed limit was slashed, and alcohol sales were banned altogether for three days.

The shift faced legal challenge by a protest group, People Against Switching Sides, and even a new political party (“The People’s Party”), all of which warned of chaos.

But all to no avail.  At 5.50am on Monday 7 September, a radio announcement was made and all traffic stopped. Ten minutes later, when the traffic re-started, all the rules had changed, and Samoans now drove on the left. In the event, it all went off very smoothly.


But what do Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis have to say about this?

No idea. Visit the Staggers to find out.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of Citymetric. He tweets as @jonnelledge, and definitely didn’t write 1,200 words about the direction “left” purely to troll a colleague.

Like us on Facebook for more of this stuff.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.