Alcibiades Today's Blog

Outsider view, insider knowledge
APRIL 28, 2012 9:04AM

How to Solve Traffic Congestion Without Taxes

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There is a traffic problem in this country. What, you've already heard?

 Well, it's a bigger deal than most of y'all area ready to believe. How about these two sets of numbers:
-- In 2010, only 439 urban areas traffic problems caused 4.8 billion additional travel hours and wasted 1.9 billion gallons of gasoline. Source.

-- A well-regarded study of traffic congestion in 83 urban areas estimated 4,000 additional deaths in the year 2000 and 3,000 additional deaths in the year 2005 due to the raised levels of fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrous dioxide caused by traffic congestion. Source

Just two little studies tell us that wated gas and thousands of premature deaths every year are some of the results of traffic congestion. Many more ills flow, so feel free to add your own.

The Federal Highway Administration has a bundled approach to address this problem. As a government agency, it thinks of things the government can do, such as improving signal timing, more effective resolution of accidents and broken downs vehicles, and variable tolls to control the flow of taffic. State agencies do the same, as do local transportation planning commissions. Unsurprisingly, all of the proposed solutions by these entities will cost money, most of it from taxpayers.

In my own non-scientific study, I'd estimate a simple change in driver behavior could eliminate 1/3 or more of all traffic congestion. I encourage any reader to replicate the experiment and post a response. The proposed behavior is zippering, the practice of allowing one car from each lane to merge sequentially, just like the early socialization exercise of taking turns. What rocks about this behavior is that it can be contagious, so the simple act of letting one car merge can ripple through the next three to five vehicles with ease.

The two most common spots for my study have been in the DC metro area (Connecticut Avenue just south of I-495 and north of Jones Bridge Road and the University Boulevard ramp to the Outer Loop of I-495). In the former I am in the traffic who must allow others to merge, in the latter I am among the poor souls hoping to merge. I state with confidence that in those brief shining moments when zippering works well, traffic flow increases by better than 50% with no unnecessary stop-and-go. Just imagine if this behavior were to be extended not just to the merge lanes but traffic generally. No more stopping on the interstate for no reason at all, no more watching a light change several times without moving [insert your list here]...

 Writ large, there is no possible way to estimate the numbers for saved gasoline, less pollution, fewer accidents, lower stress. Thing is, is takes pairs of two to get it done. Here's my best Arthur Murray bit.

You must be willing to always allow one car to merge in front of you. Yet for all that you are willing to let one car merge in front of you, you must not  allow more than one at a time -- that breaks the zipper. Conversely, if you are given room to merge, you must take it. If the driver in front of you allows a car to merge, so must you; and if that driver fails to do so, start the zipper. If the car in front of you merges, wait your turn for the next opening.

 No matter how much of a hurry you are in, breaking those simple rules will  not shorten your trip today, but following them could shorten it tomorrow. It's a prisoner's dilemma issue with low apprent rewards or penalties for individual defection and cooperation, but huge rewards/penalties when all cooperate/defect. The likelihood to cooperate or defect is influenced to varying degree by what the drivers immediately before have done.

To write it large, and establish general rules:
-- If you know you have to be in a particular lane, get there well before you need to, because zippering does not apply to people going from the left lane to exit lane. Even if you are not from the area , if you know you are getting off within a few miles, get into the right lane to make it easy.
-- Avoid surprising other drivers, which most often occurs when they suddenly find a vehicle in front of them that they didn't expect to see there. So, no sudden change of lanes without signaling just because you can.
-- Pay attention to the road and your fellow drivers. There is no reason to be surprised by a car suddenly in front of you, because you should have seen it moving. More on this below.
-- Be ready to zipper at a moment's notice. Accidents can occur in any lane, trees can fall, large animals can be struck, vehicles can suddenly break down, and unannounced (or poorly announced) lane closures can affect anyone in any lane. Once the problem is identified, zipper.

If we can do this, with no governmental regulation and no new taxes we will significantly reduce traffic congestion and all of the negative impacts that flow from congestion. Beyond ourselves, there is only one obstacle:

 The jackass driver who cares about no one else, always defects, and generally drives like a maniac. Even on a normally choatic and non-zippering road, these drivers standout. We all have seen them, most of us have been one at least once. They will be out there, hopefully fewer as the good behavior of the majority shames those who behave badly. But because there will still be some who will play by their own rules  and can feel no shame, pay attention to the road and your fellow travellers. Expect the unexpected.

We do this final thing, and we can create a uptopia on the roads that could spread to other areas of social life. If we fail to do this, we doom ourselves to waiting for more roads, traffic flow studies and every other effort that will arrive too late to be useful and will cost us money that could be spent on better things, while all the while spending more money and killing more people. Put that way, what's to lose?

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