Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Carrots vs. Sticks to Reduce Traffic Congestion

I am sitting in my office at the School of Business, Economics and Law in Gothenburg, Sweden and am catching up on some reading before I head back to doing research.

In this city, the public transportation is outstanding and I have ridden the trams, ferries, and busses and, as someone who teaches and research transportation and logistics, frankly, I just enjoy seeing the multimodal traffic flow so well through the beautiful streets of this city (and the public transport is highly utilized).

I have also been told by my transport and logistics colleagues here at the University of Gothenburg that soon the city will be instituting congestion charging and it also plans on developing additional transport links to the periphery of the city so that the region grows economically.

Each year (while not on sabbatical) I teach a transportation & logistics course at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst and I enjoy teaching this class very much. Of course, one of the topics is tolls or congestion pricing.

There is an article in The New York Times, which quotes a bunch of researchers that I have cited, notably, Frank Kelly of the UK, who has also done some nice work on the Braess paradox. The article describes a recent $3 million transportation grant awarded to a Stanford researcher, Dr. Prabhakar, who is a computer scientist, and who, while stuck in traffic in India, came up with a system to offer incentives via a lottery for commuters to change their time of departure for a commute and then get, depending on the value, a financial reimbursement in one's paycheck. This system has now been implemented at Stanford and, given the competitive nature of employees there, it seems to be working quite well, reducing the commuting time from 25 minutes to 7 minutes, in some cases . However, whether it can scale up to a city such as NYC, for example, is questionable.

This reminds me of how I try to motivate students -- usually through carrots,  rather than sticks, although sometimes, albeit,  infrequently, the latter may have to be implemented but gently. Peer pressure also works well when it comes to motivating others towards hard work and success.

Given the technology for  Prabhakar's system, called Capri, Congestion and Parking Relief Incentives, which combines computer networks, smartphones, and travel behavior with economics, we are seeing another excellent example of supernetworks in action.  As for the acronym of his system, Capri, I was flooded by some remarkable memories of a computational economics conference that I spoke at a few years ago on that magical island of Capri, which entailed taking a taxi from Naples through a tunnel and then a hydrofoil, followed by a bus winding up and around the cliffs to the top, where the conference hotel was located, appropriately named, Annacapri.