Up until 20 years ago, it was commonly thought that traffic jams could be avoided by building interchanges or widening roads. Enough data have been accumulated since then showing that the causes of urban traffic congestion are more dynamic: not the number of cars sold in the market, the number of traffic lanes in a city, nor even Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz.
The main cause of traffic jams is people's willingness to wait in traffic jams.
An illuminating example took place 20 years ago in New York when one of the bridges at the entrance to the city was suddenly closed because of a crack in a supporting column. The municipal transportation department panicked because traffic to the city would have to make do with far fewer lanes for months. The traffic jams were expected to cost hours each day, but it never happened. Some of the congestion shifted to the other entrances, but part of it simply disappeared.
In order to understand where the congestion went, it is necessary to understand how people choose to travel and why. The key to this understanding is not the travel distance; it is a concept called value of the journey. Think of it like this: say you have to buy a table and you have a selection of stores to choose from. How will you decide which one to go to? The spontaneous answer is "the closest one," but it's not really like that. There might be traffic jams on the way to one of them, or parking might be far away and cost money. The decision of whether and where to travel in order to get what we want depends on us personally and the value we are willing to "pay" in order to get the product.
There are products and things for which we are willing to travel 90 minutes, for example an excellent workplace. There are some for which we will not be willing to travel more than 10 minutes, for example black bread or a kindergarten. How long are we willing to travel for a bride's dress? A game watching our favorite sports team? A hot dog? Cigarettes? A meal at a restaurant with two Michelin stars? A hot date? There is a "value of the journey" for each one of these "products."
When the bridge in New York was closed, people simply decided that it was preferable to buy some products on the "other" side of the bridge. When we open another lane to Tel Aviv, it is worthwhile for more people to enter the city, so the traffic jams at the entrance immediately compensate for the extra lane.
Value of the journey is more of a psychological than an economic concept; it depends on the individual and his priorities, and the product that he or she is seeking. It is also affected by the barriers that people expect. Will the trip take a long time? Are there traffic jams now? Will I find parking easily? Is it better to travel by cab? By bicycle? And also - do I know the way there, or will I get lost in a labyrinth of one-way streets? Wait a minute, what am I talking about? Don't I have Waze to help me find the way?
That is the point. Waze and the other navigational apps and programs have removed one of the biggest barriers to travel by private vehicle - how to get there. Let's do a thought experiment. Assume that you have heard on the news that the global GPS system has collapsed and there will be no navigation by mobile phone at all for the next week. How many journeys will you cancel? How many will you switch to buses? To cabs? You understand the idea.
Navigational apps have eliminated one of the constraints on traveling by private car and we are willing to pay more for other constraints, for example time spent waiting in traffic jams, especially when the app has the added benefit of telling us the best route to travel. Waze is an excellent app only when only a small proportion of the population uses it. When everyone uses it, however, it adds to urban road congestion and traffic jams at the entrance to cities.
The next question is whether autonomous cars will eventually relieve us of the effort needed drive and pay attention to the road. Will this add to or subtract from traffic jams?
The author is an architect, urban planner, and urban transportation analyst.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 31, 2018
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