Why Traffic Lights When There is a Free Market?

Disfunctional traffic lights are hardly an unusual sight in Johannesburg, but it seems lately the problem has gotten even worse. As I drove into town today I passed no less than seven robots in various states of disrepair – from blinking red to completely out to interesting combinations of in-between states where, say, one side is out and the crossing road’s light is green.

But what I also saw was an unprecedented number of Outsurance guys directing traffic. What are those, you ask? They are actually really cool. Whenever you come across a group of two or three of them with their neon vests and motorcycles parked nearby, you send a silent “hallelujah” skyward, because you now have a good chance of getting through the intersection in no time. Whereas otherwise it could take you all day.
These pointsmen, as they are called, are dispatched to hot spots by an enterprising insurance agency that views the central display of their product at busy thoroughfares as the perfect way to advertise. It’s a win-win all around – traffic flows better, more people have jobs, Outsurance might gain a few new customers, and the City of Joburgnever has to lift a finger. Which quite honestly they never do anyway. Just getting them to pick up the phone is a challenge, as I’ve documented elsewhere.
The pointsmen program even has its own website. Do leave them a message of encouragement, I’m sure they’d love that.
Why even traffic lights, is what I want to know? Imagine letting every company out there stake out a bunch of intersections, much as the hawkers already do, and direct traffic in return for free billboard space? And decrease unemployment dramatically in the process? Then you could do away with the bothersome traffic lights that break down at the first opportunity. Or because someone steals the cable leading up to them.
While I originally thought this was just an ingenious idea acted upon independently, some Googling of the topic revealed that there is, in fact, some type of agreement between the City of Joburg (and some other South African cities as well) and Outsurance outlining the program. And apparently it is in jeopardy after six or so years of existence. Even though the City of Joburgpays not a cent for these guys (other than perhaps some training), it has seen the potential riches of selling the rights to the highest bidder.
So might we soon see “This robot brought to you by Fruit and Veg City” or “HiFi Corporation – proud sponsor of William Nicol/N2 interchange” springing up all over Joburg?

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