Could Improving the Deal for Choice-Passengers Reduce the Traffic?

Today’s dumb traffic (if it happens) will be the sum of all the individual choices of people who choose to drive today. Of course it will happen, and the traffic is going to continue to be bad and get worse until more people make a choice to be a driver less of the time, becoming ‘choice-passengers’ (in cars, vans, buses, or trains) more of the time. This post explores the idea that improving the ‘deal’ for choice-passengers could reduce the traffic.

Imagine a demand curve for travel as choice-passengers.

As the ‘price’ of traveling as a passenger decreases (from P to P-1), so the number of trips people take as passengers can be expected to increase (from QP to QP-1).

The ‘price’ of traveling as a passenger (rather than as a driver) is a complicated idea. Firstly there are the obvious savings of not operating a personal car. Taken away from whatever price the passenger pays for the trip, this seems to suggest traveling as a passenger has a net negative price (a saving).

Much of the literature about getting people to use alternatives focuses on this amount that can be ‘saved’, for example on this commuter website. But clearly, this is not sufficient for enough people, and dumb traffic ensues. Something else must be at play.

It is suggested that the control, privacy, and convenience of traveling as a driver, that is given up when traveling as a passenger, is a large component of this ‘something else’. Another component is the inconvenience of traveling as a passenger and being subject to someone else’s schedule and perhaps taking more time in total for the trip. These are all ‘non-dollar’ costs, and for people who choose to drive they are thought to exceed the net negative price that passengers ‘save’.

The demand curve for choice-passengers would take into account the full dollar and non-dollar costs, and the benefits and dis-benefits of traveling as a passenger rather than as a driver, and they would be specific to the route and the time of day.

On any given route, at any given time, the existing deal, ‘P’, delivers the existing quantity, ‘Q’, of choice-passenger trips. The simple idea of this post is that improving the deal on a given route at a given time, by moving from ‘P’ to ‘P-1’, could reduce the traffic (on that route, at that time) by the difference between ‘Q’ and ‘Q-1’.

How to improve the deal for choice-passengers

The relationship between price and quantity demanded is pretty much settled. The idea of presenting ‘choice-passengership’ as the important factor, and the ‘deal’ that choice-passengers receive as a key driver in reducing traffic in this way is thought to be new.

In practice there are many programs that have improved the deal to achieve temporary reductions in traffic, such as Bridge Bucks during the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project in the US National Capital Region in 2001-2008.

It could be argued that improving the deal for choice-passengers is the flip side of the same coin as congestion pricing. The counter-argument would be that the focus is different. Congestion pricing requires a transaction with every user – it is a blunt and unpopular instrument.

Perhaps with some creativity, the deal for choice-passengers could be improved through transactions with only the choice-passengers (a ‘reverse toll’ perhaps), at the time and place that the dumb traffic is occurring. Compared with congestion pricing, this would deliver lower administration costs, and its introduction would consume significantly less political capital.

As a minimum, it is suggested that decision-makers should understand this demand curve and the elasticity of demand (the percentage change in quantity for a one percent change in price) for choice-passenger trips on the facilities that they control for the times of day that they experience dumb traffic, and use this information as they consider the range of potential solutions to improving the traffic.

What do you think? Is this a new idea, a more useful focus, or just stating the obvious? What would you focus on to improve the deal for choice-passengers? What barriers or challenges might this approach encounter? Please answer in the comments section.


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

What Causes Predictable Traffic Jams

The predictable traffic jam or ‘dumb mobility’ is the bane of many commuters’ existence: a day-in day-out drudgery that can create health problems and spoil the moods of thousands every day. Why do people put up with bad traffic? Where does it come from, and where is it going? The purpose of this article is to encourage a discussion about this question. Is it all about people?

“The traffic was bad,” is a useful excuse when arriving late at work – but often that might be shorthand for “I did not get moving early enough.” Just how early to get moving is known to depend on the amount of variability in the traffic. But a report in the New Zealand Herald the other day mentions how the traffic is getting bad earlier recently – suggesting something about how Auckland commuters are using their roads.

It is surprising to find that there are several different definitions of ‘traffic congestion’, and it seems the quantum of the impact of traffic congestion depends on the training of the person doing the measuring. Economists and traffic engineers arrive at different answers.

A study in 2013 explained how Auckland’s annual cost of congestion is now considered to be 1.25 billion New Zealand dollars, but by another measure might be only 250 million New Zealand dollars (page 45). What is it really, and how do you lose a billion dollars between two different perspectives?

An excess of concurrent drivers, given the amount of road

Perhaps like good art, traffic congestion is something people can all recognize when they see it, but that they are unable to describe. Either way it seems certain that it arises from there being an excess of concurrent drivers, given the amount of road.

This definition will work as long as there is a driver for each vehicle. It is slightly more accurate than saying there are too many vehicles, because the vehicles did not decide to be there.

Setting aside a future with driverless cars, in busy locations the traffic is only tenable when a sufficient number of people each day do something other than drive: telecommute; take the bus or train; carpool; vanpool; cycle; or walk. It is not clear yet whether the pooling versions of transportation network companies are net-beneficial, and single passenger taxis certainly do not reduce the traffic.

The way to reduce the traffic is to get more people to use the right alternatives. So far so good: and perhaps so obvious. If too many people drive on any given day, the traffic that day is going to be bad. A colleague at the City of Pasadena put it this way: “I have to make sure 9-10 percent of people use alternatives so that everything works.”

It is also true that accidents cause traffic jams, and these are less predictable. However, the more vehicles there are on the road, the higher the probability of a crash. So reducing the number of concurrent drivers could reduce both predictable and unpredictable traffic jams.

So who are all the concurrent drivers that jam up the roads? Drivers in traffic jams should look in the mirror. There is the culprit: that person looking back: together with all the other drivers in all the other vehicles.

Every one of those people made a choice to drive today, and the dumb traffic is the sum of all their individual choices. And the traffic is going to continue to be bad and get worse until more of those people make a choice to be a driver less of the time.

What do you think? Is there such a simple explanation for traffic jams? Does it help to make it clear that it is the drivers and not the cars that cause traffic congestion? What strategies could be employed to reduce the number of concurrent drivers? Please answer in the comments section.


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

Are Predictable Traffic Jams Complex or Complicated?

Predictable traffic jams or ‘dumb mobility’ defy efforts to improve regional transportation. Smart mobility solutions help people get around congestion, but then the congestion spreads and those solutions stop working. This article questions whether the traditional engineering approach to solving for congestion fits with the nature of the problem. It suggests that the nature of the problem may be complex, while the traditional approach treats it as complicated. This may appear to be semantics, but the difference could explain why congestion grows unabated in spite of massive investment to reverse it.

In a 2010 video, Dave Snowden explains the difference between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ problems or systems. In particular he discusses the different approaches that should be taken to resolve problems depending upon where they currently fit on a continuum from ‘simple’ to ‘chaotic’.
The framework has to do with our understanding of cause and effect. The premise is that the further along the continuum, the less clear the relationship between these two. For simple problems, cause and effect is well understood and ‘best practice’ tells how to resolve a problem. Getting wet in the rain? Put up an umbrella.

Complicated problems are like a whole lot of simple problems combined; cause and effect is well understood by those who have developed expertise, and ‘good practice’ sourced from an expert tells how to resolve the problem. Need to cross a valley? Build a bridge, and get an expert to help design it so it does not fall down.

Complex problems are quite a different matter. Cause and effect is not well understood, even by experts. Solutions that seem to work in one context fail in another. What works in one place at one time might not work in the same place at a different time.

For complex problems, ‘emergent practice’ might be specific to one context or one time or one location. Experimentation is called for. Solutions should be ‘safe-fail’: easy to cancel if they are not working, easy to expand if they are. Need to reduce the daily flow of traffic? Even the experts have had limited sustained success.

Failure to have sustained success at solving a problem suggests that cause and effect is not well understood, and that the problem should therefore be treated as a complex one.

Trying to solve complex problems with the tools used for complicated ones is both futile (the problem is not solved) and expensive (often resulting in serious amounts of overbuilt infrastructure, for example), so it is important to recognize the difference.

A predictable traffic jam is not complicated, it is complex

Enabling mobility through provision of roads begins as a simple solution: Need access? Build a road. In fact, many roads were created first as dirt tracks – very simple. As time went on and demand increased, provision of roads became more complicated because of the amount of traffic that used them, but it seemed cause and effect was well understood. As demand for mobility increased, engineers responded with ever-more lanes. Each wave was going to fix congestion, but each time the congestion grew. The response that assumed knowledge of cause and effect failed.

Now smart mobility focuses on the same understanding of cause and effect: reducing the space between vehicles assumes the same complicated (but understood) relationship that justified adding lanes – and it seems unlikely it will lead to a different outcome.

The treatment of excess concurrent vehicle flows as a complicated problem is deeply entrenched in the transportation planning and engineering approaches used around the world today. There is a feeling of security in the ‘belief’ that there is a manual or a formula or a toolbox to use to solve the problem, and experts who can dictate the good practice to use.

However, the evidence of the ongoing quantum of traffic congestion and failure to have sustained success at resolving it should beg the question: should a different approach be used? Is this in fact a complex problem? Is it even a ‘transport problem’, or is it better characterized as a ‘social problem’?

And if so, how should society’s forces be marshaled to deal with it?

What do you think of the idea that predictable traffic jams are a complex problem and require greater levels of experimentation and less reliance on experts and standardized solutions than is currently the case? Do you think the complicated versus complex distinction is a useful addition to the discussion? Please share your opinions in our comment section.


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

Are Predictable Traffic Jams a ‘Tragedy of the Commons?’

Predictable traffic jams or ‘dumb mobility’ is hampering progress towards a better mobility, and will only be reduced when people take greater collective responsibility for mobility outcomes. This article considers whether the road network is a ‘commons’, and if so if dumb mobility represents a ‘tragedy’ of the commons. It suggests that the ‘commons model’ may be a useful framework for thinking about the challenge of getting people to take greater collective responsibility for mobility outcomes.

In a 1968 article in Science called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Garrett Hardin provided a fascinating and very readable insight into the nature of mankind to breed and consume itself into extinction. Mankind depends on certain common resources for survival. A feature of a ‘commons’ is that individuals can consume the common resource without restriction.

Hardin explains that as population expands beyond some point, rational (self-interested) consumption of the common resource by each individual can be expected to result in excess consumption by the whole of the community, thereby destroying the common resource: a tragedy. Hardin called for ‘mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’ as a mechanism for preserving the resource – in effect removing it from being a commons.

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences for demonstrating that ordinary people can create the sort of mutual coercion that Hardin spoke of. In her 1990 book, Governing the Commons, Ostrom explains that at the heart of the tragedy of the commons and similar models is the problem of the free rider – the one who gets the benefit of the collective action, but does not contribute to the joint effort.

Is the road network a commons?

The road network is somewhat different to the types of common pool resources that Hardin’s and Ostrom’s work explores. As well as not being a natural resource, a key difference is that road networks are (or were) expandable, so upon finding the shared resource full, more lanes could be constructed – not the case with grazing land, fish, or an aquifer.

Also, putting too much demand on the road network does not necessarily damage it for future use in the way that natural resources suffer from over-use.

However, once the limits of road network expansion are reached (either physically or fiscally) the resources seem more similar. And if the resource is framed as a thoroughfare, with the benefit derived being unimpeded passage on a daily basis, then an argument could be made that its function as an effective thoroughfare during peak periods on certain days of the week can be permanently damaged by predictable traffic jams.

In this way, the road network can be seen as a commons, and dumb mobility can be seen as a tragedy of that commons.

Governing the road network commons

Hardin speaks of inevitability. However Ostrom’s research identified a number of examples where sustainable self-managed shared resources existed, and had existed over long periods of time without becoming tragedies. She analyzed case studies of these situations and proposed a framework for evaluating options for alternative structures in different situations.

She proposed a small change in the theoretical model that explained a workable alternative, and presented a very real example of such a solution in operation. In essence, the users of a common resource (in this case a fishery in Alanya, Turkey) devised a solution that allotted fishing sites to local fishers without the usual methods of privatization or central (read government) regulation.

Ostrom goes on about examples that have worked and ones that have not: “The differences may have to do with factors internal to a given group. The participants may simply have no capacity to communicate with one another, no way to develop trust, and no sense that they must share a common future. Alternatively, powerful individuals who stand to gain from the current situation, while others lose, may block efforts by the less powerful to change the rules of the game. Such groups may need some form of external assistance to break out of the perverse logic of their situation.”

“The differences may also have to do with factors outside the domain of those affected. Some participants do not have the autonomy to change their own institutional structures and are prevented from making constructive changes by external authorities who are indifferent to the perversities of the commons dilemma, or may even stand to gain from it.”

As people sit in traffic, suffering from dumb mobility, to what extent are they participants in a tragedy of the commons in which they have “no capacity to communicate with one another, no way to develop trust (that they will not cheat), and no sense of their common future”?

To what extent are they bound to stay in this situation as a result of ‘powerful individuals or external authorities who stand to gain from the tragedy, or are indifferent to it’?

Further, is it possible in 2015 that the tools are beginning to exist that could help them communicate with one another and develop trust? If so, could a new paradigm of road network management be devised by the users (rather than tolling authorities or central government regulators) that would result in better outcomes?

What do you think of the idea that the road network is a commons? Is dumb mobility a tragedy of that commons? And do you think road users could devise a better management system? Please share your opinions in our comment section.


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

Are Smart Mobility Apps Distracting Us From a Bigger Issue?

Is too much faith being put in smart mobility apps to create the mobility of the future? Is something more or different needed to resolve the core issues of the present? What will it take for people to stop making individually rational, but collectively irrational mobility choices? This is the first in a series of articles suggesting that better mobility is possible, but requires travelers to take more responsibility for collective mobility outcomes.

Rapid urbanization is creating a massive challenge as the growth of traffic in cities continues unabated. Per capita driving might be declining, but the quantum of driving in urban areas continues to increase.

There seems to be a conventional wisdom among the smart mobility community that a smart mobility app or combination of apps is going to fix the traffic and deliver better mobility sometime soon.

Certainly smart mobility solutions are needed; especially ones that make it easier and more rewarding for people to travel as passengers more often, and as drivers less often.

However, it seems that the growth in traffic is outstripping the uptake and impact of smart mobility solutions: and there is a lack of candid discussion about the problem.

A big mobility issue that is not being addressed

An elephant in the room is a big issue that people pretend does not exist. By failing to address the elephant the big issue does not go away, and therefore hampers progress.

Highly predictable traffic jams happen every day. People individually do what seems best and easiest for them, but collectively this creates incredible levels of wasted time and energy, and excess emissions.

These predictable traffic jams could be called “dumb mobility”. Unlike smart mobility, dumb mobility is not an app; it is a collective behavior, and given the magnitude of the negative externalities, it is strange that it is tolerated to the extent that it is.

There is no question that dumb mobility is made more tolerable by such things as incremental in-car comfort and entertainment improvements. One future scenario with autonomous cars assumes that traffic stays bad, but driving-time becomes office-time because drivers can switch their attention to emails and reports rather than the task of driving.

There are also mixed incentives for bringing about change. The gasoline tax-take is greater when there is more dumb mobility; the opportunity to design and implement ever-larger infrastructure and public transport projects is greater when there is more dumb mobility.

In their Manifesto for the End of Driving, Grush and Niles envision a future of autonomous cars that could be hell or heaven. They imply that it will only be the latter if dumb mobility is sorted out.

Dealing with dumb mobility

One point of view is that dumb mobility will only be reduced when people take greater collective responsibility for mobility outcomes, and change their travel habits accordingly. Smart mobility apps might enable these changes, but the thinking goes that the desire to change has to come from somewhere else.

One way to encourage a change in travel habits would be to provide cash rewards, but this option suffers from the lack of a source of funds. One idea for solving this is to forego a large infrastructure investment, but invest the debt servicing costs in behavior change instead.

This is the first in a series of articles that will hopefully generate a discussion about how to create the best environment for smart mobility apps to succeed. It starts with the proposition that there is a need to find a way to get people to want to change, and for travelers, politicians and planners to stop tolerating dumb mobility as the first step in creating a real platform for change.


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.