Solving Austin’s Traffic Problem, One Nudge at a Time

Amanda BleaseMobility

Austin traffic … we’ve all heard ad nauseam just how bad it is. But to help pass the time as I sit in traffic, I catch up on podcasts. And the other day, on NPR’s Hidden Brain, one queued up on my playlist about…you guessed it… traffic.

As a consultant at an infrastructure communication firm, I think about traffic a lot. Naturally, my ears perked up. Of course, traffic is a complex issue and it certainly won’t be solved overnight, but the podcast spurred me to think about some of the ways we can implement solutions right here in Austin.

In doing research on traffic, I found some of the best solutions rely on behavioral economics and the concept of “nudges”– incentivizing people to make better choices about transportation without restricting their freedom of choice. Here’s a look at how some of the ideas could be applied to Austin.

 

Decrease supply, decrease demand.

As the podcast brought to light, traffic obeys the law of supply and demand. Interestingly enough, building more roads – or increasing supply – does not decrease traffic. It actually creates more traffic.

The real question is, how can we decrease demand on existing roads? Two solutions are tolls and congestion pricing. Congestion pricing means charging a small fee for drivers to use the roads during peak times – such as about $2-4. Cities like Stockholm and London use congestion pricing and have seen positive results. And interestingly, while consumer opinion is usually against the congestion pricing at first (no surprise there), after a few years the sentiment has been seen to reverse in Stockholm with 70 percent of people supporting the increase in pricing after experiencing positive results.

It will be interesting to see how the MoPac express lanes fare as they blend the idea of tollway and congestion pricing.

 

Stagger work times.

In 2016, the mayor proposed Austinites work from home on two different days to help combat traffic – one in March when President Obama was in town for South by Southwest (SXSW), and one in May to promote an “Austin Don’t Rush Day.”

It turns out, on March 11 Austin peak drive times saw a dramatic decrease in traffic.rush

However, for Austin Don’t Rush Day, that was not the case.

Why the major difference? It could be a matter of incentives. Since on March 11, several events converged at once (SXSW, president in town), people expected traffic to be exponentially worse than on a normal Friday. On May 11, a normal Tuesday, the incentive wasn’t high enough as people were expecting average traffic levels (yes, those are bad enough usually, but not raised to catastrophic levels like what was anticipated on March 11).

Even though staggered work days may not have worked for Austin Don’t Rush, we’ve seen that it can prove successful when tied to a bigger incentive (in this case the benefit of not dealing with a three-hour commute to work). As Austin continues to be a popular destination, perhaps we keep this in our toolkit and consider implementing again as needed when we have similar situations of multiple events converging in one day.

 

Walk, bike or use public transportation.

As a resident of far South Austin I’m guilty of driving my car to get into town, but many cities are developing programs promoting alternate modes of transportation. In Austin, Capital Metro and the city are partnering on the Smart Trips program to reduce drive-alone trips.

It’s been successful in other places like Portland and Australia where a study showed a 4-15 percent decrease in car use. Austin’s goal is to reduce single-occupant vehicles in the neighborhoods where the program is implemented by five percent.

Portland also capitalized on a key tactic in motivating behavior change – engaging with people who have just moved. It’s much easier to change someone’s behavior when they are already in the mindset of starting a different routine than it is to change a longstanding habit. With the number of people moving to Austin every day, Smart Trips may encourage residents to find transportation options other than driving.

 

While Austin’s traffic won’t be solved in a day, there’s no shortage of good research and creative ideas. I’m confident Austin can find one or more solutions that help make all our commutes a little easier.