By Kevin Meyer
So what does a typical city do when commuter trains and buses reach capacity? Add more capacity of course – unless you're broke. But perhaps there's a better way if we simply use our own lean tools and ask why two or three or four or five times to get at the real root cause.
Why is capacity max'd out? Because the trains are full. This is the point where some folks will simply invest a couple billion in new trains and tracks and such. Let's go a bit further. Why are the trains full? Because there are too many commuters. Why are there too many commuters? Because for some godforsaken reason they all want to commute at the same time. Why do they all want to commute at the same time? Because they and presumably their employers feel that there's something special about an 8 to 5 work day.
So after digging deeper, instead of spending boatloads of cash on new trains to soon be filled with graffiti, perhaps we should look at modifying the work and hence commute timing. That's what some cities are doing.
You would think anyone who had to suffer this on their daily commute would try avoiding rush hour. But it is a perennial problem of public transport systems that, as they add passengers, travel patterns become more “peaky”—ever more concentrated around morning and evening office hours.
Reducing peak-time congestion would not only save transport costs (smoothed occupancy would mean less half-empty off-peak trains, which cost as much to run as crowded peak ones); it would also save time for transport users, potentially improving productivity at work and economic output.
The government of the city state of Singapore—11m public transport journeys a day, average commute time 35 minutes—is planning to pilot an incentive scheme later this year to do exactly that. Commuters will earn credit for each journey taken (triple credit for off-peak journeys) to earn a chance of cash prizes in weekly lotteries.
Wait cheap fares and such are tried all the time. What's the deal with this lottery thing? Human nature apparently.
The scheme would be the first city-scale application of an idea toyed with in 2008 by Infosys, an Indian software company, to encourage commuters to its main research site in Bangalore to use the company’s off-peak buses. That scheme, the work of Stanford academic Balaji Prabhakar, doubled the number of off-peak commuters, significantly reducing congestion on the Infosys peak-time buses.
Mr Prabhakar says his idea, a system of lotteries, relies on the behavioural-economics insight that the average person is risk-seeking when stakes are small.
Offer individuals 20p to leave the house an hour earlier, and most will say no. But a 1-in-50 chance of winning £10 seems more enticing.
Rewards-based schemes are more politically appealing than punitive charges. Several cities have tried to implement congestion charges (fixed fees to drive into crowded areas) but most have failed. Such charges are seen as little more than additional taxes, and if there is only one tariff, they hit the poor the hardest. Rather than fuel resentment, incentive schemes could encourage commuters to change behaviour voluntarily, and even gladly.
Potential savings? Well everything, especially not needing any more capital investment.
The hope is that the project will eventually be self-funding. Infosys managed just that in Bangalore, where the prize pot of 100,000 rupees a week could have been quadrupled before eating up the savings generated from running 8 fewer buses. Singapore has expanded the capacity of its public transport system signifcantly in recent years at great cost, so the potential for savings is huge.
Well, not quite. If they've already expanded the capacity then reducing or leveling out commuters doesn't really change the investment already made.
But digging deeper to understand the true root cause and find a self-funding innovative solution is still better than the typical knee-jerk reaction to throw more money at a problem and hope it goes away. Especially these days.