Collectively addressing traffic rather than individual drivers looking for the best route for them

As Waze and other apps route drivers all over the place in order to find the shortest route, one writer argues we need to consider how traffic and congestion is a collective issue:

Road traffic is a great example: absent other incentives, I’m always going to choose the fastest route home that is available to me, even though taking a longer, more circuitous route would help spread out traffic and ease congestion for other drivers across my city. Traffic engineers have long assumed that the Nash equilibrium describes real-world rush hours pretty well.

In fact, mathematical studies and behavioral experiments dating back to the 1960s have shown that the collective delay is almost always worse in the Nash equilibrium, a.k.a. “user-optimized” driving scenario, compared to a world where drivers worked as a team for smoother traffic overall. Imagine a centralized transportation planner who assigned commuters their routes based on what was going to most benefit everybody. That god-like figure could impel some drivers to protract their journeys in order to improve the overall flow and decrease the cumulative time spent in traffic.

In this “system-optimized” equilibrium, our trips would be less harried on average: One widely cited 2001 paper by computer scientists at Cornell found that a network of “user-optimized” drivers can experience travel times equivalent to what a network of “system-optimized” drivers would experience with twice as many cars. Transport engineers call the difference between selfish and social equilibria the “price of anarchy.”

And the proposed solution:

Perhaps the best approach to the future of traffic starts with redefining the problem we’re trying to solve. For most of the 20th century, the principal concern of transportation economists was to reduce travel time across a given distance. But getting as many people as possible to and from work, school, and shopping—period—might be the more important task. If the goal is reframed as increasing access, rather than increasing speed, then the answer involves more than traffic apps and vehicle transponders. Land use patterns would have to be rethought so that people can live closer to the destinations they care about. People should be able to walk as much as they want to, and use bikes, scooters, buses, and trains. Autonomous vehicles, if they come, ought to be carefully folded into the mix with care so as not to double down on congestion and carbon emissions.

The solution hints that this is a much larger issue than apps and whether they should be held responsible by the public. The underlying issue may be this: are Americans generally willing to set aside their own personal priorities in favor of societal arrangements that can benefit more people on the whole?

Americans like to drive and it is baked into the American way of life. One of the reasons Americans like their own vehicles is that it offers independence and control. Rather than relying on a set schedule or having or riding with other people or supporting big systems, Americans like the idea that they can get into their vehicle at any time and go wherever they want. They may not actually do this much – hence, we get fairly predictable rush hours when everyone is trying to go places at the same time – but individual vehicles provide options in a way that mass transit does not.

Making the switch over to systems rather than individual options – including mass transit – requires submitting parts of life to a collective that cares less about individuals and more about the whole. This same debate is playing out in other arenas such as how healthcare should be organized or whether wealth inequality should be addressed. If the favored outcome is individual choice, it is hard to move people toward collective approaches. Even if thinking of traffic and transportation as a larger system means that more people might be stuck less in traffic, the individual participant may not gain that much or may lose the feel of control. Access for all is a hard sell when many like their individual choices (even as they bemoan congestion).

It might take decades or generations before a significant shift away from individual drivers might occur. Indeed, more than just apps can continue to promote individual approaches to driving: ride-sharing still is largely an individual act and the private nature of self-driving cars might just make the choice to drive even easier for some.

Towns that restrict road access to app users only address the symptoms and not the bigger issue

The decision in a New Jersey suburb to fight back against drivers directed to their streets by apps raises all sorts of questions:

In mid-January, the borough’s police force will close 60 streets to all drivers aside from residents and people employed in the borough during the morning and afternoon rush periods, effectively taking most of the town out of circulation for the popular traffic apps — and for everyone else, for that matter…

But Leonia is not alone. From Medford, Mass. to Fremont, Calif., communities are grappling with the local gridlock caused by well-intentioned traffic apps like Waze, which was purchased by Google in 2013 for $1.15 billion.

Since Waze uses crowd sourcing to update its information, some people — frustrated at the influx of outside traffic — have taken to fabricating reports of traffic accidents in their communities to try to deter the app from sending motorists their way. One suburb of Tel Aviv has even sued Waze, which was developed by an Israeli company….

“It’s a slippery slope,” said Samuel I. Schwartz, the former traffic engineer for New York City known as Gridlock Sam, and the author of the early 1990s book “Shadow Traffic’s New York Shortcuts and Traffic Tips.” “Waze and other services are upsetting the apple cart in a lot of communities. But these are public streets, so where do you draw the line?”

See an earlier post about a Los Angeles neighborhood that raised similar objections.

I can see the reasoning by small communities: the roads are partly or mostly paid for through local tax dollars and thus they should primarily be reserved for the use of locals. These sorts of situations can become big deals in suburbs where residents are often resentful of ways that their local tax monies serve others.

At the same time, this hints at a larger issue: efforts like this by single communities could end up having deleterious effects on the region as a whole. What if every suburb or community employed such tactics? Traffic would only be worse. This then suggests a metropolitan approach is needed to tackle these congestion issues. This might be difficult to do considering how local residents like to hold onto their own monies but drivers across the region might be too mad at that point to care if there are no alternative routes. The best way to tackle this issue may be to lobby for more mass transit and decreased reliance on cars in the New Jersey suburbs.

Waze app ruins tranquil Los Angeles streets near major highways

Drivers have flooded a number of residential streets near major LA highways thanks to apps that reroute drivers around congestion:

When the people whose houses hug the narrow warren of streets paralleling the busiest urban freeway in America began to see bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling by their homes a year or so ago, they were baffled.

When word spread that the explosively popular new smartphone app Waze was sending many of those cars through their neighborhood in a quest to shave five minutes off a daily rush-hour commute, they were angry and ready to fight back.

They would outsmart the app, some said, by using it to report phony car crashes and traffic jams on their streets that would keep the shortcut-seekers away…

There are some things that can be done to mitigate the situation, said Los Angeles Department of Transportation spokesman Bruce Gillman, like placing speed bumps and four-way stop signs on streets. Lanes could even be taken out to discourage shortcut seekers, but a neighborhood traffic study would have to be done first.

A fascinating confluence of driving culture and new technology. Now, no street near the major highways are safe from traffic!

It will be fascinating to see how the city responds to complaints from local residents. Having rush hour congestion on your residential road can make for quite a different experience. It is a quality of life issue – who wants to have bumper to bumper cars in front – and I suspect the residents are also worried about their property values. Yet, what about the concerns of drivers on highways like the 405 that handle over 375,000 cars a day? This is a classic stand-off between individual drivers and individual property owners – who should win between the prized American driver and property-owner?

The real solution here is to keep looking for ways to reduce the number of vehicles on the highways in the first place. However, such plans at this point in LA’s development require a long-term perspective and lots of money.