Traffic games

From Ars Technica comes an article about a program at Stanford University called Capri (which stands for Congestion and Parking Relief Incentives). If you commute to Stanford you can join, and get points for travelling at off-peak hours, in hopes of reducing traffic in the area. Points can be redeemed either for cash, or credits in playing an online game with the chance to win prizes. Other countries and cities have implemented “congestion taxes” to try to alleviate peak traffic. While this may be effective, behavior modification through punishment is certainly not as fun as through rewards!

Then the question becomes, where does the reward money come from? Capri is funded by a $3 million research grant from the US Department of Transportation. But what if the city of Denver wanted to implement a similar system to the one at Stanford? According to The Transport Politic, Denver has approximately 300,000 workers, of whom 80% drive or carpool to work. Let’s say 80% of those commuters are driving during peak hours (since I couldn’t find exact data, this could be off). So that’s 192,000 peak commuters. Let’s say the goal is to reduce peak traffic by 10%, or get 19,000 people to leave work an hour earlier or later. What is the smallest reward for which you would wake up an hour early on a given day? $5? $10? Let’s say $5, which isn’t a lot, but it can add up to $1300 a year, which is a nice chunk of change.

But whoa, 19,000 times $1300 is $27 million dollars! Does Denver have $27 million lying around? Considering the $90 million budget shortfall predicted for 2013, I’m guessing not. So you’d have to raise taxes to fund the project. Suddenly now you’re punishing everyone, including people who bike or walk to work, because of a traffic problem created by drivers, who are the only people eligible for the reward, which isn’t much of a reward anyway, since it’s just returning some of those tax dollars back to you. If word got out, there would be outrage.

The only way out of this impasse is to quantify, in cold hard cash, how much traffic costs the city. Does it cost $27 million a year? And if so, if you could prove it theoretically, before being able to conduct the experiment, would people believe you? I guess that’s what this Stanford research project is all about: conducting the experiment on a small scale to see how it might be effective on a larger scale. But a University is not like a small city. It can give you hints, and suggestions, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating!

Logistics aside, I do love the idea of real-life behavior modification through games. I plan on reading a book written by Jane McGonigal called “Reality is Broken: Why games make us better, and how they can change the world”. Sounds like a radical idea, and one that just might be crazy enough to be true.

Day 2

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