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Is it Time to Send in the Clowns?

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How can deeply ingrained civic habits be changed?  How can the pessimism inherent in collective action problems be overcome?

Antanas Mockus, upon becoming mayor of Bogota, Colombia in 1995, confronted Bogota’s epidemic levels of traffic fatalities with a unique blend of statistical analysis, street and performance art, and civic education.  Statistical analysis told Mockus that the key to reducing traffic deaths (and improving traffic circulation) was getting drivers to stop before reaching crosswalks and getting pedestrians to only cross in crosswalks.   Rather than hiring legions of traffic police to write tickets to drivers and pedestrians who violated these norms, Mockus hired 40 made-up street mimes to stop cars and buses from entering crosswalks, and to poke fun at offenders of crosswalk rules.  The streets became a massive stage for lighthearted education about traffic norms, with jay-walkers,  crowds on the street, and the mimes all engaged in the performance, and television and other media drawn to the spectacle and amplifying its message. Bogota pedestrians and motorists adopted the norms promoted by the mimes, and traffic deaths began to fall, successes widely reported by the media. The mimes proved so successful that Bogota’s ranks of mimes increased to 400, and traffic deaths in the city plunged by more than 50%.

The injection of mimes into Bogota’s traffic mess has become a famous example of “cultural acupuncture”–a shot of art/culture used to change behavior and heal social problems.

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