Saturday, June 23, 2012

Nudging to reduce congestion

I have blogged earlier arguing that public policies that seek to reduce traffic congestion has to go beyond widening roads and include those that make vehicle ownership and usage expensive and also incentivize drivers to shift away from peak-time use

Times (via Mostly Economics) points to an interesting experiment being conducted in Stanford University to lower traffic congestion by providing incentives to vehicle users to shift their commute to off-peak times.

Since early this year, Stanford Professor, Balaji Prabhakar and his group, Congestion and Parking Relief Incentives (Capri), have been experimenting with a scheme to declog the University's notoriously congested campus. The scheme, supported by a $3 million research grant by the US Department of Transportation, allows vehicle owners at the University campus to enter a daily lottery, with a chance to win up to an extra $50 in their paycheck, just by shifting their commute to off-peak times.  An early variant of this was tried out by the same group at an Infosys campus in Bangalore.

Early results appear to indicate that the voluntary scheme has been a success, both in terms of reducing travel times considerably and also attracting users. Instead of relying on the expensive physical infrastructure like sensors and RFID tag (like with congestion pricing), the Staford experiment uses the smartphones and location-tracking devices in the users vehicles. It uses the finely grained information on space and time from these user devices to set up a centralized web-based service to manage the incentives campaign.

However, Matthew Kahn raises important questions about the sustainability of such incentives. He contrasts incentive schemes with the polluter pays principle based congestion pricing. In the former, the payouts come in the form of a public subsidy (even with all the attendant benefits of reducing congestion) whose burden will only increase as the program gets scaled up. He also points to the difficulty of separating those who have shifted to off-peak hours from those who were anyways going to travel during those times.

Further, it can also be argued that the incentives possible under any such scheme when scaled up are too small for it to achieve significant changes in the commute behaviour. However, supporters argue that with congestion pricing facing political opposition in many places, such voluntary schemes may be the best possible way to introduce incentives into traffic management.

Prof Prabhakar has also developed a similar incentives-based program to encourage walking (to improve health) among Accenture employees. The scheme, called “Steptacular,” uses pedometers to measure the number of footsteps more than 3,000 employees took each day. It also includes a social network component and a Web-based game to add a random element to the incentives and has handed out $238,000 in rewards.

No comments: