You Can't Cure Congestion Only on the Weekend
Traffic on the 405. Flickr photo by Atwater Village Newbie.

Traffic on the 405. Flickr photo by Atwater Village Newbie.

Over at the Atlantic, they’ve given Conor Friedersdorf the project of writing about “Ideas.” This has meant a lot of posts about good ideas and an ongoing discussion of the “Worst Idea Ever.” For the latter, I highly recommend his thoughts on the ketchup packet.

But yesterday Conor wrote up what he believes to be the idea that will solve traffic in Los Angeles. I’m… not convinced.

The idea in a nutshell is to create some sort of social network of commuters linked to GPS. If you want to request a ride to somewhere, you go online, enter your current address and your destination and the website alerts a driver who is traveling a similar route. There is then some system that allows for a small payment from passenger to driver.

It’s an idea with some appeal. The decentralized nature of the operation is likely to prompt real entrepreneurship and innovation, something that transportation always needs more of. It also has a good vibe about it for a certain demographic; I feel like he’d be smart to advertise in Wired .

That said, I don’t think it would be successful at all. There are a few logistical issues—like that the cost of installing the GPS and payment devices amounts to a fairly significant fee to join the program and that as currently imagined it could only be used by a very tech-savvy demographic—that would need to be, but could be, overcome. No, the problem is that Conor completely misunderstands what people want out of transportation.

More than anything else, a traveler, especially the commuters Conor begins his post by describing, wants reliability. Almost anyone would prefer to spend an hour getting to work than have a high chance of not punching in before his shift starts or missing an important meeting. This service doesn’t provide reliability, or rather won’t until it has already become a mass phenomenon. No commuter would want to rely on a service that might not pan out on any given morning or that might not get her home in the evening. So that narrows the customer base down to the second kind of driver that Conor mentions, the person wanting to casually go down to the beach for the afternoon. In other words, it doesn’t eliminate traffic at the periods when there is traffic: the weekday rush hours. In fact, that’s even how they measure that L.A. is the most congested city – they compare the time distances take at peak hours vs. off-peak hours.

So by all means, Conor should set up his system. It could take on Zipcar and in particular I think would very much outcompete with taxis. I’d definitely consider using it for a trip to the beach. But I don’t think that you’d see enough of a critical mass for this proposal fast enough that I’d ever take it to work. And if no one takes it to work, you don’t hit traffic where it hurts.

Might I recommend investing more in mass transit instead? Or if it’s just slugging Conor wants, why not put in HOV-3 or HOT lanes and watch the market recreate the situation at the Bay Bridge or in Virginia?

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