Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Traffic Congestion as an Information Problem

I've mentioned IBM's Smart Traveler program before, but the New Scientist has a short article about it that deserves comment. From the article:
The Smarter Traveler Research Initiative blends real-time traffic data with past traffic patterns to predict congestion up to 40 minutes into the future. Drivers are then automatically sent an email or text message of conditions on their regular commute before their trip begins.


"If you are already on the road and a sign says 'congestion next 5 miles' you may have very few options," says Naveen Lamba of IBM. "But if you get that information prior to starting your journey, you can choose to stay at home, work late or take a different route."

What this explanation suggests is that IBM views traffic congestion as an information problem. If you know your route will be congested you can alter your behavior.

Yet don't most commuters already know this? If you leave work at rush hour, the roads will be jammed and anyone who has commuted more than one day will not be surprised by this. Commuting is often a regularly occurring phenomenon, where drivers learn about their commutes simply by repeating them a couple of times a day. I expect that drivers already decide when to travel and what route to take as best they can. It isn't obvious to me (at this point, but that's why we do research) that specific knowledge about traffic congestion is necessarily better than general knowledge about traffic congestion in terms of changing travel choices. I don't view congestion as an information problem, where congested conditions can be avoided simply by knowing more. Congestion occurs because too many people want to use scarce roadspace at the same time, even though the motorists know lots of other people want to move around as well.

I do see potential for these Smart Traveler types of applications for autonomous vehicles, though, and projects such as IBM's may be useful in that regard.
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