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.