Yawning Bread. April 2007

How a traffic jam began




Every time that an aircraft crashes, a thorough investigation ensues in order to find out what engineering and operational faults led to it, the aim being to learn from mistakes so that such an accident does not happen again.

Now, I am no aviation inspector and what I am going to analyse here is not an aircraft disaster but a commonplace traffic jam. But it is surprising, when one thinks about it, how we rarely try to understand how traffic jams occur, when in real life they are such frequent things that annoy us no end.

So sit back, and listen to this tale of multiple failures.

Seven o'clock in the evening and it's peak hour. I was on a bus service number 106 heading west from downtown along Holland Road towards Holland Village (i.e. travelling in from the right side of the map). It was one of those extra-long buses articulated in the middle, that Singaporeans call "bendy buses".

Normal route for bus #106

As it approached Holland Village, it slowed to a crawl, and finally when it reached the junction with Holland Avenue, it stopped completely. This junction has for some time been a difficult spot because they're building an underground train station right there. Digging and construction work take place right up to the edge of the partially narrowed roads. I wasn't surprised at first that we were going particularly slowly. But after being stationary for a few minutes, it dawned on me and all the other passengers that this was more serious than usual.

Seated in the forward part of the bus, I could more or less observe things, so I started paying attention.

The normal route of the bus required it to turn left into a slip road that led to Holland Avenue, but this evening, the slip road was blocked by a trailer -- one of those low-lying, extra-broad flat-bed trailers, with a huge piece of heavy equipment on board.

Why was the trailer not moving?

Bus #106 blocked by trailer at the slip road

Soon a construction worker walked up to the bus driver's window and told him that the trailer was well and truly stuck. The slip road led to a fairly steep incline and the trailer driver felt he could not take his heavy vehicle down it safely. So he stopped. Perhaps he had hoped to reverse out of the slip road, but with traffic as heavy as it was on Holland Road, it was impossible. Thus he could go neither forward nor back.

The construction worker advised the bus driver to move forward 50 metres or so to the main junction between Holland Avenue and Holland Road and make his left turn there. The bus driver said it couldn't be done, because that turning was far too acute an angle for his long bus.

And so they waited. For what, I don't know. It wasn't long before passengers became impatient. Five or six young men went up to the driver to offer suggestions. Almost unanimously, they asked him to drive up another 500 metres of Holland Road to the junction with North Buona Vista Road. A left turn there would take him back to his normal route along Commonwealth Avenue from Buona Vista metro station onwards.

One look at the map above and the reader will see that it is the obvious solution. However, the driver said he couldn't do that, because it would mean skipping three bus stops (2 along Holland Avenue and 1 along Commonwealth Avenue). In any case, he wasn't allowed to change his route at will.


To everybody else, it was clear that skipping 3 bus stops would be the least of the problems, since those passengers living in the vicinity were already abandoning the immobile bus, alighting and picking their way through the construction site to get home. But the driver kept telling the guys who were trying to help that he couldn't do anything.

He made a phone call to his despatch office informing them of the situation and requesting instructions. Should he make the detour?

Amazingly, the despatch office did not okay it. They told him to wait for the traffic police to arrive to sort out the situation. But anybody would be able to see that even after the traffic police's arrival, it would still take at least half an hour, if not more, to do anything at all about the trailer. For the trailer to back out, the bus would have to reverse. But by now a huge traffic jam had already built up behind it on the left-most lane.

To make matters worse, another 106 inched its way up the right lane. Its driver had tried to be clever, overtaking the stuck cars on the left lane, only to discover that he too couldn't turn left at Holland Avenue, because the first 106 was there behind the trailer.

Another #106 came along... on the right lane

The two drivers shouted to each other through their windows, the first driver telling the second that he had already contacted the despatch office and that he had been told to wait for the traffic police and not make his own detour. That meant that the second 106 too had to wait.

So the second 106 stopped in the right lane, blocking another lane of traffic. I gave up and got off.

* * * * *

A solution the simple detour -- was there for the taking, but yet it wasn't taken. To do so, the first bus driver needed to act on his own initiative and take responsibility for it. As you could see, his primary motive was to avoid taking responsibility, something known as "cover your arse syndrome". He hoped the despatch office would make the decision for him, but the people there too didn't want to take responsibility by making any decision on rerouting. Pass the buck to the traffic police. Wait for them to sort out the problem. They didn't seem to realise that not making a decision (on the detour) is making a decision with consequences.

Then when the second bus came along, another common Singapore syndrome came into play -- that of peer discouragement. The first driver warned off the second driver from taking his initiative too. In effect, he told him, "Play safe like me. If you are thinking of doing a detour, don't or you'll get into trouble."

Why would the first driver do this? Subconsciously, he was afraid that if the second driver took the initiative and did better at solving the problem, it would reflect badly on him (the first driver). Better that both of them took the same no-risk path so that they could cover each other's arse.


Perhaps the bus driver was thinking about passengers who might be waiting at the 3 skipped bus stops for his bus, but frankly, nobody could help them in such a situation. No bus was going to get through the slip road.


And you'd notice that an explicit rule no rerouting was treated as sacrosanct, no matter how perverse its effects were on the given situation.

* * * * *

This instance of passing the buck recalls a case from last month when a family was held back by security at Changi airport, missing their flight altogether.

A mother was asked to remove her boots while going through the metal detector. The boots were put through the x-ray scanner. Both she and her boots passed through without incident. On the other side, her 13-year-old daughter asked her casually, "Mummy, why do you have to remove your shoes?"

"They are afraid that we might keep bombs in our shoes," the mother replied.

At once, a security officer interposed and asked her: "Repeat what you just said."

To that, the mother explained: "My daughter asked me why I need to take off my shoes, and I told her that you guys are afraid that we will keep bombs in our shoes."

She was stopped and asked to stand aside. He had to report the matter to his superior, he said, because she had uttered the word "bomb" twice. 15 minutes later, the sergeant-in-charge came, but he too refused to make a common-sense decision in the light of the circumstances and decided to escalate the matter further up.

It was another 40 minutes before the police arrived. At least they knew that there was really no case to hold them further, but by that time, the flight had left without the family.

The mother's letter was circulated on the internet. A copy is archived here.

About a month after the incident, the airport authorities told the press that they had settled the matter with the family. Apparently some monetary compensation was involved, to cover the financial loss from missing the vacation. But wasn't the whole episode unnecessary?

* * * * *

I've had many run-ins with civil servants and officers of statutory boards, and in my experience, they are notorious for refusing to take responsibility for their actions. This is especially when they sense that I am aggrieved by their decision and intend to challenge them.

Typically, it would be necessary to know whom I was dealing with if I wished to take the matter further, so I would ask, "May I have your name and job title, please?"

Very often, the answer would be, "you don't need my name."

"Yes I do," I would say. "You purport to represent the ministry, but I don't know who you are or what position you hold, why should I take your word for it?"

"I don't have to give out such information," they'd say.

"What's the name and title of your supervisor?" I might ask.

"That's confidential," they'd insist, though I'm sure it's not.

And so on.

In the private sector, any sales representative or other employee who refused to identify himself when dealing with customers or the public and yet claim to represent the company would be severely reprimanded, if not sacked. It's a critical bit of courtesy and a crucial element of accountability. That's why business name cards are so ubiquitous in the commercial world.

However, as the bus episode shows, the "cover your arse" syndrome can be found way beyond the civil service. And simply because of that, a few hundred motorists and their passengers were fuming mad in a traffic jam one evening on Holland Road.

Yawning Bread 


There's also the question of why the trailer ended up on the slip road with an incline, but I have no observations to share about that problem.