It’s the 8 a.m. rush hour in Wuhan. At the intersection of Luoyu Road and Zhongnan Road, cars are lined up for hundreds of meters, as they are every morning. Hanzhong Zhang, the traffic policemen who is responsible for this intersection, uses his walki-talkie to call his colleague, who is managing the next intersection over. After a brief discussion, Zhang reaches for the last resort. It’s a gray box on the roadside, with a Siemens logo that can be seen faintly through a thick layer of dust. Zhang opens a flap on the box and presses several buttons. The traffic signals for the cars turning out from Zhongnan Road suddenly turn red. The traffic jam on Luoyu Road becomes a bit shorter, but there’s still not a smooth flow of traffic by any means. The chaos doesn’t begin to calm down until after 9 a.m., when pedestrians have a slightly better chance of crossing the intersection in one piece.
The traffic in Wuhan is nightmarish. In this city of ten million, it has increased dramatically in recent years. At the behest of the city, Siemens installed an Urban Traffic Control System in 2007. The system encompassed traffic controllers at more than 400 intersections — about two thirds of the city’s major traffic hubs. The controllers automatically switch the traffic lights on and off. By now it is obvious that this automatic system can no longer manage the traffic flow during rush hours, because it is based on the assumption that drivers will behave in a predictable way. However, that’s an illusion. When traffic jams keep lengthening and drivers have to wait longer than they like, even red traffic lights are not an obstacle. In case of doubt, the boldest driver wins. At that point, Mr. Zhang has to intervene. He uses the buttons in the controller box to control the traffic lights manually.