We were sitting at a red traffic light waiting for it to turn green.
“Why can’t I have a remote control to turn it to green? There is no one coming from the other direction. What a waste of time!” - I said. “I am willing to pay to make the light turn green.” “Well, what if there was someone at the other corner and he also wanted to pay?” - said Samir. “Maybe we could start an auction. The one who is willing to pay more gets the green light!” “There’s an idea! We should write a patent for this. I’m sure it’s never been done before!”
And then what? What will happen if you get one green light? You’ll get stuck at the next one. What we really wanted is to be able to control the whole route, starting from home all the way to our meeting in the city. But that’s what everybody really wants.
We realized the only way for this to work is with a central unit to direct all traffic. To tell drivers where to go, where to drive, and which roads to take. But not like Waze. Don’t get me wrong, Waze is fantastic, it will show the fastest route to drive to your destination. But it shows the same route to every driver. The car in front of us is using Waze: I can see their screen. And so is the car next to us and the car behind them and behind that one and so on. “There are 3,567 Wazers in your area”. Cool, so now we are all stuck together in the same traffic jam.
The problem with Waze is that it is too effective, in Israel 67% of the drivers use Waze. And as a result everyone is offered the same option and as a result everyone is stuck in traffic. Still better than taking a random route but still stuck in traffic. But what if we could offload some of the traffic to the second best route? And the third? Then traffic would flow and we would all be arriving in a shorter time. Even the ones on the second and third best option. The problem is that there’s no way for a driver that isn’t in a hurry to take a slower route in exchange for an incentive or a lower cost. We have the classic economic “tragedy of the commons” where since no one owns the fish in the pond, everyone over-fishes and soon there are no fish left in the pond.
The way to solve this problem is to centrally manage all traffic and optimize the total transit time for everyone so that traffic will flow. Finally! And when traffic exceeds capacity on any given road, the system will offer the fastest route for auction to the best bid. The concept is that at any given time, any given road has a fixed capacity. Each vehicle wanting entry to that road would buy a “ticket” entitling it to access that road at that time. These tickets would be sold both in advance, and on the spot, and could be resold from one user to another user. In this way, there would be a dynamic market in road access, just the same as there is one for salt, wheat, sugar and so on. There would be exceptions for HOVs, low income families, service and emergency cars as well as for any other approved socially useful activity.
After all, every driver has a different perception of the value of arriving on time. I may be driving to the city for a VC meeting for which I cannot be late. Arriving on time is priceless and therefore I am willing to waste an enormous amount of my time by sitting in traffic for hours, or waking up
one hour earlier just so I would be sure to make the meeting. But I would certainly prefer to pay a fee so I can be guaranteed to arrive on time.
On the other hand if I am taking the kids to the Metropolitan museum on the exact same route I may not really care if I get there in 50, 60 or even 90 minutes. I am certainly not willing to pay. That’s why offering best routes to the highest bidder makes sense.
What is the result? The automatic consequence is that drivers who need access to routes the most will get their right of way. The others will get the second/third/fourth best option available, at a lower price, or even free. Traffic will flow for everyone, those with the ability and need to pay the most will do so, and those that want a cheap or even free journey will be able to get it, at the cost of a slightly slower journey, but still with free flowing traffic.
The benefits are obvious. First of all you’ll know how long it will take you to drive to your destination. To drive, not to sit in traffic. And how much it will cost. No jams will mean also lower pollution, less noise, and less time wasted for everyone.
The system we designed can also be used to promote local business. It can tell you that if you are willing to take a side road and accept a delay of 20 minutes you could stop at a coffee shop and enjoy a free coffee there while you wait for traffic to flow. Drivers who don’t mind will enjoy their coffee and maybe spend a few bucks on something at the shop. The coffee shop will gain business. Those that are willing to take a slower route to declog the main arteries could even be paid to do so. Furthermore, the revenues collected could be used for road and infrastructure maintenance, as well as for subsidizing other forms of transit that take the load off the roads: for example, buses, trains, and transport options.