Why is New York City Removing Ignored “No Honking” Signs?

January 29th, 2013

The New York Times reports that New York CIty is removing signs that warn people not to honk their horns. Why? They are ignored.

Now, it appears, the city has effectively thrown up its hands — or, more accurately, taken down its signs.

In a move condemned by critics as a tacit surrender to a ubiquitous noise, the Transportation Department is removing all “Don’t Honk” signs from the streets, and predicts there will be none left by the end of the year.

City officials said the move was part of an effort to declutter the streets of often ignored signs.’

But why would New York eliminate signs? What is the cost of leaving them up? They can’t hurt anyone, right?

 Nonetheless, the decision has ignited a voluble opposition among noise-conscious New Yorkers, particularly in high-traffic residential areas like the Upper East and Upper West Sides.

“I can’t tell you how many requests I get for ‘no honking’ signs,” said Gale A. Brewer, a councilwoman in Manhattan who wrote a letter to the city’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, arguing against the change. “The notion of taking down information when information is so hard to get in New York City is pretty bad.”

Brewer could not be more wrong. It is possible to have too much information–and with too much information, signs are often ignored.

Nate Silver writes about over-signage in his cool new book, The Signal and the Noise. In short, where there are too many signs (call it the noise), it is harder to find the important signs (call it the signal). If everyone is simply ignoring the no-honking signs, they get into the behavior of ignoring all of the signs, including the important ones. Also, people become overly reliant on the signs, and stop relying on their own judgment (a problem that many underestimate with the move towards disclosing EVERYTHING).

Many cities in Europe have begun to eliminate signs, to great success (see here, here, and here). From the UK Guardian:

Far from generating anarchy, road rage and a trail of death and destruction, taking away traffic controls prevents drivers ‘bunching’ into gridlock and speeding because it forces them to slow down and take more care.

Experiments in towns in the northern Friesland region found that busy junctions where two or three people had been knocked down and killed every year dropped to a zero death rate when they took the traffic lights away and put a tree in the middle of the street instead. UK experts now believe the same methods could work in Britain.

The unusual traffic arrangements are based on forcing motorists to rely heavily on eye contact with each other, pedestrians, cyclists and bus drivers instead of falling back on road signs and red lights to dictate their driving. When drivers have to keep an eye out for potential obstacles and casualties because there are no lines, traffic lights or lane markings they automatically slow down to below 20mph – a speed where a child who is knocked down is five times more likely to live as one who is hit at more than 30mph.

By eliminating the ignored signs, they make the important signs more observable.  The City’s comments implicitly acknowledge this:

Seth Solomonow, a spokesman for the department, said that while the reason for the drop was unclear, “we’re not aware of any evidence that the signs have had any impact at locations where they’ve been installed.”

He said the signs could even be misleading, if a driver believed that unnecessary honking was prohibited only at locations that had them, and said the city had improved signal timing to better avoid gridlock and the honking it so often yields.

I doubt Mayor Bloomberg’s Politburo is aware of this science–it aims to over-regulate everything else. But for once, I am glad that NYC walked into an effective act of informational asymmetries.