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Can We Fix Traffic By Paying Commuters to Play a Video Game?

Congestion pricing penalizes commuters. A new approach uses creative incentives to modify traffic patterns instead.

Stuck in traffic this morning on the way to your desk? If you were paid to leave an hour earlier (or later), would you? You've likely heard all about congestion pricing, a system that requires commuters to pay a charge to access the city center or other critical areas. But what if these plans rewarded the desired behavior rather than penalized the undesirable?


Fellow telecommuter Cyrus Farivar over at Ars Tecnica has a fascinating piece about traffic relief innovation coming out of Stanford University that flips the cash scheme on its head. It turns out, you really only have to modify the behavior of a fraction of the commuting population to significantly change traffic patterns, explains Balaji Prabhakar, a professor of engineering and computer science.

The most important thing about congestion that’s worth knowing is that it’s a 10 percent phenomenon. That means if you shift 10 percent of the load from peak to off-peak, congestion will come down significantly for everyone. The reason is that as load approaches capacity, the rise in congestion is very severe at the high end. You don’t have to shift everybody.

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Participants in the pilot programs in Singapore and Palo Alto placed RFID chips in their windshields that could be read by scanners to track their comings and goings. In exchange for commuting during off-peak hours, drivers received 10 credits that could be either redeemed for cash or used to play a simple Chutes and Ladders-like game where they stood to win more than the value of their credits. The more credits one pockets, the bigger the cash prizes.

So far the research team has given out $128,000 in Singapore and $31,000 in Palo Alto and though the research findings are not yet available to the public, some users have reported cutting their commute time by more than two thirds. A smartphone app is also in the works.

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