The Price of Anarchy

Guest Correspondence

BY KEVIN COOPER SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY SEP 5, 2015

In the United States, there are more than 87,000 flights in the skies on any given day. In flight, why do these planes rarely, if ever, experience traffic jams?  

For the automobile, however, traffic jams are a more common occurrence. As perceived traffic issues increase in likelihood and severity, what follows is typically a conversation that begs for additional roadway investment and construction. Typically devoid from these conversations, however, is a focus on something equally as important as funding and roadway capacity: the driver.

In Sarasota, letters to the editor and lunchtime conversations often attribute traffic problems to tourists, snowbirds or drivers past a certain age. However, the larger issue is more simple and broadly assignable. In his seminal work, Dr. Tim Roughgarden, associate professor at Stanford University, described the problem well.  In exploring the concept of ‘selfish routing’, he focused on “the degradation in network performance due to selfish, uncoordinated behavior by network users.”  The contribution that drivers make to Sarasota’s perceived traffic issues has far less to do with age or home state than it does the propensity to make isolated, self-serving decisions.

A 2014 roadway level of service report showed that, of the 460 studied, Sarasota County had 62 major roadway segments operating below their adopted level of service. However, one could locate adequately performing, parallel segments near those underperforming segments. In fact, the entire system actually had an additional capacity of almost 265,000 vehicles during the peak hour. Why wouldn’t some of the drivers on the failing segments just shift to geographically similar, non-failing segments?

So, why don’t airplanes typically experience traffic jams while in flight? It isn’t just because there’s a lot of sky. Rather, air traffic control and flight plans that force everyone to think about everyone else mitigate the negative effects of 'selfish routing.’  Roadway traffic systems are devoid of an omnipresent controller and regulated, planned routes. Of course, it’s likely undesirable and wholly improbable for such a condition to occur. However, in the absence of such planning and oversight, the result is that drivers with inherently habitual, unaware and self-serving tendencies consume the commodity of roadway capacity without ever considering how conflicting interests fail to maximize potential.  

There are significant economic and environmental costs associated with traffic congestion. Theorists like Roughgarden wouldn’t just describe these costs as the price of development or the price of tourism.  Both of those factors, unlike the concept of ‘selfish routing,’ can have positive contributions that outweigh their cost. Instead, a significant portion of the cost we pay can be aptly described as the price of anarchy—the measure of the inefficiency of self-serving, uncoordinated behavior.   

It isn’t just that traffic exists, it’s that there isn’t a reasonable way to predict what it will do.  Even if money were of no issue, building roads to eliminate congestion can be a risky and uncertain proposition. The challenge isn’t just reengineering the system, it’s also reengineering the driver’s approach to it.  

SRQ Daily Columnist Kevin Cooper is the vice president for Public Policy and Sarasota Tomorrow Initiatives for The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce

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