It Could Pay to Take the Longer Route Instead of Sitting in Traffic

Automobiles wait in a traffic jam on a New York City highway
Automobiles wait in a traffic jam on a New York City highway. REUTERS/Mike Segar REUTERS

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By Lucy Bayly

New research shows that the best way to cut through rush hour traffic is to take the high road — literally.

Scientists at MIT and the University of Birmingham, in England, studied “the interplay of number of vehicles and available road capacity” — that’s “traffic jam” to the rest of us — and determined that if just a handful of drivers opted to take a "slightly less convenient" route to their destination, they could reduce overall congestion for everyone else by as much as 30 percent — and lop off 10 minutes of travel time for thousands of vehicles.

The only issue is that most drivers aren’t that altruistic, and prefer sitting through a familiar traffic jam instead of taking a chance on a longer, unknown road.

Read More: Phones, Friends Are a Distracting Problem for Teen Drivers

The researchers tabulated data from cellphones in congested urban areas of Boston, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, and Lisbon and Porto in Portugal to study rush-hour traffic patterns across those cities. The results, published in Nature Communications, found that “the unwillingness to give up time is the defining factor in drivers’ failure to reach an optimal state on their own.”

The paper’s authors concluded that the only way forward would be for drivers to “adjust their commute for the benefit of others.”

The ultimate goal would be for urban planners to find ways to induce such altruistic behavior, such as offering gas coupons, free parking, and other incentives for those drivers who would be willing to lead the way — literally and figuratively.

Read More: Google Wants Congress to Smooth the Road for Self-Driving Cars