A productivity idea

February 14th, 2013 at 11:59 am by David Farrar

My street, Hobson Street, has had crews working on it for the last few weeks. This is a good thing, as they are laying duct for fibre.

Generally this means that part of the road is one way for a couple of hundred metres. This means that two people are employed to hold up a go and stop sign to allow traffic to flow.

Everyday as I see this, it occurs to me there must be more efficient ways to do this, than have two people doing nothing but holding up a go and stop sign. Three ideas:

  • Have a set of connected electronic stop and go signs which one person can control with a remote. That halves the operational cost, for what I presume is a modest capital cost.
  • Have a set of connected electronic stop and go signs and just have them on a timer where they flip say every 45 seconds (with a 15 second break where both are red to allow traffic to clear inbetween). This means you need no people operating then. Would not work in all situations but definitely would for such a small road.
  • Just make Hobson Street one way temporarily. No electronic signs or people needed. Not a major hassle as all you have to do is travel down Murphy Street 300 metres and then come up Hobson.

Any other ideas for gains? Any flaws in my ideas?

34 Responses to “A productivity idea”

  1. bhudson (4,770 comments) says:

    Just make Hobson Street one way temporarily


    I suspect if this came to pass you would have hordes of parents/child-taxi-drivers hunting you down to exact unspeakable revenge.

    Depending on which way the ‘one-way’ ran, I could be one of them… 🙂

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  2. redeye (730 comments) says:

    Your option 1 would only work where remote operator has a good view of both ends of the works. Your option 2 would be a bit inflexible for those doing the work. Sometimes it takes longer to move the roller down the road.

    In my area they could cease resealing the roads in the middle of the bloody tourist season.

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  3. ben (2,428 comments) says:

    I have wondered this as well. The question is why these productivity gains have not emerged. My guess is either unions insist on labour not capital doing the work, or councils do in giving permission, thinking that make work help, or perhaps as a tax on ripping up their roads.

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  4. RRM (12,579 comments) says:

    Great idea!

    The guy who loses his job can always eat cake. That will lift employment, catch Australia, etc etc.

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  5. RRM (12,579 comments) says:

    And on a serious note, as I understand it civil firms tender pretty competitively for roadworking contracts.

    I’d wager that whatever they’re doing now, is the most efficient way…

    Robot total station theodolites have reduced the numbers of chain men in surveying, but chain men are a bit dearer than labourers. You’d need a pretty cheap machine to replace a labourer.

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  6. Viking2 (14,374 comments) says:

    Yep major flaw.
    Unemployment would rise. 😆

    Same deal on the highway Tauranga to Cambridge yesterday. Except that there was two sections about half a kilometer apart both with their own lollipop men.

    There are electronic versions in use.
    and of course the old Kelburn or thereabouts tunnel had a light system way back when Wellington was less inhabited with politicans.

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  7. Viking2 (14,374 comments) says:

    Bythe way is it Fulton Hogan. They are crap at this stuff.

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  8. PaulL (6,059 comments) says:

    @RRM: buggy whips?

    @DPF: once you start thinking about things like this you’ll start thinking about taxi ranks at airports and all sorts of other productivity improvements that seem obvious. You’ll go crazy, easier to go with the flow.

    @RRM2: I think there’s an element of labour being relatively cheap and flexible – but minimum wages would impact that over time. I also think there’s elements of regulatory issue here – the council have a rule saying you have to do this, and they don’t directly pay the cost they just make arbitrary rules (at least those who make the rules don’t pay). Those tendering for doing the work see this as a fixed cost – they all have two guys with lollipops as part of their price, and other than altering the pay of those guys it’s not a competitive differentiator – they don’t care as the cost goes to the council. The bit of the council that pays doesn’t care, they have a budget for doing work, they charge it onto ratepayers, they just put up rates. Or even worse, they pass the costs on to Telecom or whomever.

    I’d certainly argue this is a case where the structure of the market is making this less efficient than it could be. And I’d argue a key part of that inefficiency is the government regulation – in a truly free market this wouldn’t be happening, in a free market with loose regulation (e.g. you have to be safe, but we don’t specify how you achieve that safety) it would probably not happen either.

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  9. markblackham (13 comments) says:

    This is an example of the danger of poking your nose into other people’s professions. There’s three obvious reasons why it’s done this way, given that automatic light systems do exist and are often deployed:

    1) the auto light system can’t easily account for the random needs of workers and equipment that require the traffic flow interrupted at random times

    2) people can assess traffic demand better than lights can (which are probably based on a timed system and first-car demand trigger), altering the go/stop as traffic builds up either side

    3) people are cheaper than the equipment, and can be turned to other uses

    I think it’s best to start from the position that people have most probably thought about their profession, trade or craft more often, and deeper, than I can in a five minute read of a news story or in general passing. It doesn’t mean things can be done better, just that it’s probably more complex than my quick judgement will ascertain.

    [DPF:Mark you may be right, but you may be generalising. Hobson Street has little traffic and is quite short. I suspect that they just have a general policy of operations for all streets, and in this case haven’t bothered to consider that for a street so short and with relatively little traffic, there is a more efficient way to do things]

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  10. xy (301 comments) says:

    Also drivers are awful and are more likely to run red lights than drive past a dude with a red sign on a stick who can actually wave it in front of you.

    Always think about how your technical system will be abused.

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  11. hamnidaV2 (247 comments) says:


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  12. Libero (2 comments) says:

    The idea that “unemployment would rise” is nonsense – it’s like saying that tidying up your mess at McDonalds puts people out of jobs as they need fewer cleaners. The resources that were previously deployed can now be put to another, more productive use. In the case of the stop/go guy the council, for eg, could get him to pick up litter (for the same wage) making the city cleaner, people (including tourists) feeling better and so on. In the case of McDonalds, the lower cost results in either increased profits or lower prices, the latter of which sounds pretty good to me.

    A couple of flaws with the remote contol idea:
    1. I, for one, don’t pay attention to automatically controlled road signs that aren’t traffic lights. If it’s clear ahead, you’ll abuse the machine for being dumb and just go for it. In addition, there’s no burly dude with sunglasses and a handlebar mo who looks like he’ll smack your head in if you do go for it.
    2. Nobody’s going to give the sign a friendly wave or eyebrow lift when it turns “go”, which is always quite nice!

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  13. PaulL (6,059 comments) says:

    @Ham: progress in the western world comes from people seeing something and thinking “I could do that better”, then working out a way to get paid for it. I recognise that your political views don’t account for that, but this is not a nerd alert story, this is part of the creative destruction that goes with capitalism. And DPF will form a view on whether his ideas are good enough that he’ll quit his day job and start a business doing it (I suspect not, but the process of even thinking about it is important).

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  14. duggie (40 comments) says:

    The electronic systems I’ve encountered are terrible. Much longer waits than people operated, probably due to a large safety factor built in when no one moves.

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  15. peterwn (4,287 comments) says:

    Temporary traffic lights can be used. Wellington City Council got a set in the late 1980’s – you had to plug them into 230 volts and run a cable between them. They use a ‘radar’ detector to determine if there is approaching traffic. More modern ones run off 12 volt batteries and have a radio link. Road gangs would use what ever is the most efficient (hopefully) in the circumstances. ‘Lollipop’ people can respond more exactly to traffic conditions, can totally stop traffic briefly if required for truck movements, etc, and are more likely to be obeyed thus improving safety to the workpeople and others.

    As for a total street closure – this is far more difficult to arrange than a lane closure – public advertisments etc are required for a street closure whereas a lane closure can be arranged fairly simply through the ‘trench opening notice’ procedure.

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  16. hmmokrightitis (1,919 comments) says:


    What would hamdick do if he couldnt hold a stop go sign?

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  17. trout (1,132 comments) says:

    The idea that technology can displace workers has proved problematic; think Novopay. In an era of importing cheap widgets, and manufacturing of all kinds becoming automated there are limited opportunities for unskilled workers. Sure we have invented new industries; the art industry, education industry , entertainment industry come to mind. But it may well be that we need to have menial work for those who are happy to do it (no responsibility, no skill required). In Japan they employed such people to rake gravel in parks; I guess that kind of work can be rewarding. even creative given the zen-like result. The Left (the liberal elite in particular) are patronizing in their belittling of menial jobs; they cannot believe people can be satisfied with less demanding paid work. Leave the traffic wardens (often young maori ladies) alone.

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  18. tvb (5,517 comments) says:

    I presume the lollipop men can adjust for traffic and allow longer/shorter times depending on traffic volume. It is quite skilled work that would require a BA in sociology to work it all out.

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  19. mpledger (429 comments) says:

    They could be rotating workers so that they have a rest between the hard physical work (digging) and the less physical work (road signs). Few people could dig 8 hours a day in this sun, 5 days a week without collapsing in a heap/having a heart attack – young fellas might but the amount they would consume in food/beverage would probably take out a goodly proportion of their wage (back in the day I knew a young telecom ditch digger and his appetite was amazing.)

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  20. Kleva Kiwi (415 comments) says:

    As an engineer who deals with this sort of thing all the time, I can tell you now that the contractor would have opted for the cheapest option that was allowable.

    Remote traffic lights are available, but generally more expensive to hire than 2 temps holding lollipops.
    These remote lights are timed 90% of the time. That’s your option 2 (and 1)

    However the council (or gummimit) probably has specified that two way traffic flow must be maintained at all times ruling out your option 3.

    Trust me when I say the contractor will always default to the cheapest option practical where available

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  21. peterwn (4,287 comments) says:

    trout – If traffic signals for roadworks cannot be trusted (a la Novapay), this would imply that all traffic signals should be removed – could be a good policy move for the Greens – Bob Jones detests traffic lights (I assume he still does) as much as he detests TV journalists disturbing his fishing in the Tongariro River and no doubt would be generous with his cheque book at election time. While we are at it, might as well remove railway signals and have people with red flags walking in front of motor vehicles and trains.

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  22. PaulL (6,059 comments) says:

    Stop signs too peterwn. As a sort of closet greenie (without the communist tendencies) I’m interested in some of the crap that we do that ruins fuel economy:
    – traffic lights
    – stop signs
    – chip seal instead of hot mix

    It’d be interesting what we could do to the average fuel economy of the NZ urban car fleet if we built our roading with fuel economy in mind – and that doesn’t require taxing everyone or stopping them from driving where and when they want.

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  23. Joseph Carpenter (215 comments) says:

    A lot has to do with OSH and the Local Authority, they’re very risk averse/CYA. You will have to submit a Traffic Management Plan & Safety Plan to the TLA and get them to approve it and the temporary road closure before you do any work. Typically they won’t allow automatic equipment when the length exceeds 400m, there is no line of sight or because of traffic type/volume. Also a company may well use humans not just because of the cost (employing 2x labourers is cheaper than a short term hire but most larger firms will own equipment which is cheaper long term) but for flexibility and risk management.

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  24. xy (301 comments) says:

    When you work with software you get pretty suspicious of clever local optimisations after a while too – going with a well-known ‘dumb’ option instead of trying to figure out the best option for every situation like this can be overall less risky. In many cases avoiding the worst case situation is far far far more important than reaching the best case situation.

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  25. xy (301 comments) says:

    (Consider what happens if someone clips an automated traffic light with their wing mirror, it falls over unnoticed, and then a motorbike goes through at 120 five minutes later)

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  26. Dave Stringer (218 comments) says:

    If you want a productivity gain try banning all government department meetings* that include more than three people and/or last longer than an hour. Probably get a 25% productivity ncrease overnight.

    * I don’t include facilitated workshops in this term, though if the facilitator is internal I’d be very tempted.

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  27. Kacang (36 comments) says:

    @markblackham – you have it right -( I’m involved in this industry)

    Another problem is that lights have to be set a conservative safe time where both ends are on stop to clear traffic coming through. Ever sat at the lights waiting for the phase to change while the intersection is empty?

    Take it from me, the average driver totally loses it if he has to wait a few seconds more than necessary.

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  28. Poliwatch (337 comments) says:

    Having worked in the industry I can tell you that the lollipop men and women are held in high regard by the road crews. They keep them much safer than a traffic light system. One red light driven through can cause more carnage and loss of production than just about anything else. Most motorists treat them as a low skilled nuisance, they aren’t either.

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  29. Bullitt (147 comments) says:

    Karori tunnel has timed lights when they’re working on it during the day. One day I followed a big truck driven by someone who clearly didnt know what they were doing. They drove really slowly then when they got to the tunnel the passenger got out and moved each cone so they could drive down the middle instead of on one side. The result was when they were half way through they met a bus coming the other way (the bus cant see into the tunnel when they start moving). Result was two large vehicles with lots of cars behind them and noone able to pass. Took a number of light cycles for the workmen to get the tunnel clear and the lights to make any sense…they earned their money that day.

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  30. Tauhei Notts (2,365 comments) says:

    I think you are all missing the point here.
    A street in Thorndon is being dug up so that all the touchy feely very close friends of their local member of parliament can have very high speed internet access.
    I think the dairy farmers of Taranaki are more deserving of high speed internet access. Our host might disagree with me but I get the impression that those yeoman cow cockies do more for our country’s economy than any number of Roseneath shirt lifters.
    A dairy farmer from Opunake was telling me that he could get much much faster access to Fonterra’s internet site from an internet cafe in Prague than he could at home on the farm.
    To promote our country’s economy it is essential that the creators of the nation’s wealth are given access to high speed internet technology, rather than the parasites of Kelburn.

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  31. PaulL (6,059 comments) says:

    Tauhei Notts: heard of economics have you? Connection cost for a densely populated suburb is a fraction of a cost per household than a sparsely populated rural area.

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  32. TM (103 comments) says:

    There is a general requirement where the traffic delay exceeds 2 minutes to go to a manual stop/go. The contractor needs specific approval from WCC (or other councils/NZTA) if they plan to exceed this by using lights.

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  33. workingman (98 comments) says:

    Coming from the UK I was stunned at first when I saw roadworks with the lollipop men, as I could not remember having seem them on most roadworks in the UK. A crew just turn up, set the automatic lights up, and then start work. I can see advantages to the lollipop men in flexibility, but overall it just seems a waste of 2 useful workers who could be doing more productive work.

    Some of the reasons given here for not using the technology seem mind blowing.

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  34. OlderChas (29 comments) says:

    Think of the providers of the four day “lollipop” training course. They’d go broke!

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