Crazy Cones

On a long drive across the country this summer I noticed something odd about construction areas.  They put out cones to block off an area for construction many hours before the construction actually starts, and take them away many hours after the construction ends.  Most of the time you drive by a blocked-off area, there is no construction actually happening there, though there are a lot of travelers delayed by these cones.

Now I’m sure they save some time by being able to put out and pick up the cones on some schedule and plan convenient to them, and it would cost more to put out and pick up the cones just before and after the construction.  But I’m also sure that this extra cost would be far far less than the value of the time lost by the delayed travelers.  Why do they make such inefficient decisions?

I don’t expect full efficiency from governments, far from it, but I do expect them to try to appear somewhat efficient to voters, and I expect them to try especially hard on the most visible choices they make.  There is an awful lot that governments do that I suspect is inefficient, but it is usually hard to be very sure of that.  But these crazy cones look like a very clear case which is very visible to thousands of voters who have little else to do at that moment but fume about their inefficient government.

Why are governments be so very visibly inefficient, and why don’t voters punish them more for it?  We aren’t talking about some policy where emotions or moral considerations get people all confused and muddled, after all.  This isn’t about race or gender or precious bodily fluids  This is very simple and mechanical and obvious, for God’s sake.  What gives?

Added: A serious WordPress error deleted this post and all 20+ comments!!  I’ve just replaced the text, but not the comments. 🙁

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  • I just added to the post.

  • Jaffa_Cakes

    It’s availability bias.

    When most folks vote or communicate with politicians they forget the annoyances they swore to do something about when they were in their vehicle.

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  • John Maxwell IV

    I doubt many people make the connection between slow traffic and the cones, and between the cones and the local government.

    Also, construction is generally done by contractors who don’t work directly for the government. Assuming putting out cones early really is the most efficient for the construction company, you might have to do something like get a government employee to check the site periodically before and after the construction and award the construction company a bonus or penalty.

  • RobQ

    I live near the Dulles Greenway, one of the few private toll roads in the world. It is hands down the very best road I’ve ever driven on, the maintenance is NEVER intrusive, NEVER hinders my commute, it’s always on the other side of the road from me. I hate paying $7 toll a day, but at least I know a lot of it’s going back into the road. Unlike the other tolls around here, I know those are being siphoned off for something totally unrelated to my commute. It’s sad that the company isn’t making a profit, I know one day they’ll go out of business and sell off the road to the state, it will go to crap, but the tolls won’t go away.

    I don’t think business solutions are really all that great or universally applicable, but when people are driven by greed/profit it’s a lot easier to understand and predict their actions.

  • jonathan

    The sources of organizational inefficiency are largely the same in government as in business, but it’s easier to discuss with anecdotes.

    Take construction on roads. If you’ve driven in Ohio, you know they have police at the start of the lane restrictions. If you’ve driven in MA, you know the police are near where the workers are. Ohio’s system processes cars much better because they’ve identified that the main bottleneck occurs at the beginning and by attacking that they improve the system. MA has not thought of this and so maintain a presence near the workers, as if to protect them, while contributing nothing to the flow of traffic. That’s at start a supervisory management, meaning someone needs to look at the problem and see that it is a problem. Not seeing comes from complacency, from being used to doing the same thing all the time. It’s common in all organizations.

    Government also faces the typical political problems involved in change. CT, for example, wanted to switch away from expensive granite curbing to concrete. This meant dealing with entrenched interests in a little thought about area. Concrete curbing is the norm in most states; it goes down quicker, for a fraction of the cost and somehow manages to last in places like N. Dakota. The granite suppliers somehow managed a rapid price cut to forestall the change and so life went on. You see versions of this in ordinary corporations when a vendor suddenly shows life after realizing there’s a threat of losing the business.

    And finally, much of the supervisory problem comes from poor management of the supervisors. I once challenged directly a transportation head who drove by several notable issues every day and never did anything about it. He was used to functioning in his old way, responding to what people raised and mostly managing based on the directions given him. He failed to see that noticing was part of his job, except in the context of what he’d been asked to see.

    How do you fix that? No one knows. Most companies don’t manage efficiently but are lucky enough to sell a product that works well enough or a service that’s good enough.

  • John David Galt

    In my experience, the behavior you describe (traffic cones put up on a schedule that wastes the time of many drivers) happens only or mostly in places like I-80 in Nebraska or Wyoming, where the vast majority of victims live in other states and thus cannot vote against the politicians who made the decision or hired the bureaucrat who made the decision.

    Privatizing roads like that might help, but even then there would need to be enough alternatives for competition to work, and in places like that it may not pay to build alternative roads.

    The best answer I can think of would be to privatize the highway advisory radio channels — because as they are now, info about such closures is mostly not available more than 100 miles or so away, and for people making long distance trips who could profitably use existing alternate routes, they often need to make the decision much farther away to avoid multi-hour detours which would not be worth making. (Wyoming is the perfect “poster boy” for this proposal. In western Wyoming the highway advisory channels don’t tell you a darned thing except that you should call 1-800-WYO-ROAD for information — and good luck doing that, because there is neither a single pay phone nor any cellular coverage on I-80 in the entire 300 miles between the Utah state line and the outskirts of Laramie.)

  • Norman

    Concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. The benefits that go to the few working on the project are large enough to change behavior, but the costs to any individual voter (or as John pointed out above, non-voter) are small enough that enacting a change would not cover the cost of writing or calling an elected official to express discontent, nor is this cost big enough to individual voters to outweigh any of the other policy positions desired when selecting candidates.

    Of course, if politics isn’t about policy, then there is even less incentive to enact a change.

  • magfrump

    RobQ: your money on public toll roads goes to reducing traffic congestion on those roads (plus building more roads for other people).

    Robin: if traffic is getting intensely congested during construction, in many cases it seems likely that traffic would often be mildly congested not during construction, thus leaving the cones with lead time to get the space cleared seems like a reasonable idea. Not picking them up immediately afterward seems inefficient to me both in terms of congestion, and in terms of the interests of the builders (see John Maxwell IV). Why send someone back hours later to pick up the cones, rather than taking them with the last person who leaves?

  • Why has nobody pointed out that they get to jack up speeding fines in construction areas? I’ve always assumed that the revenue was the main reason for such jackassery.

  • I have also wondered about the cones – whether we could stipulate in contracts the amount of time traffic could be blocked, with penalties for going over; or even contracts that would charge contractors for every hour of traffic blockage.

    Recently I was angered because I spent a half an hour on 495, delayed in traffic that was backed up 10 miles by what turned out to be 2 large government trucks driving side-by-side around 495 blocking the 2 left lanes deliberately.

    I suppose there was some reason for this, but I tried finding out who to call to complain. After visiting some websites and making some calls, I found one person who allegedly was at least in the chain of command for county traffic management. I called him that day and the next, and he never answered his phone or called back. He was not an elected official.

    In my case, I just didn’t know what elected official to contact who would have any connection with traffic management.

    • (Just to clarify: The trucks had large blinking “–>” signs on their backs, and were moving about 15 mph.)