Thursday, June 09, 2011

My Traffic Theory

A few months ago, I generated a social theory stuck in traffic for almost 2 hours. I had to visit the city to get some work done. Aware of the office traffic in a big city after living in one for years, I started at 5 in the morning to be able to reach there on time. The drive was just 2 hours, but I did not want to be held in traffic at any cost.

As luck would have it, I was caught in the worst form of traffic 18 miles prior to hitting city. I looked at the time. It was still 6:45 in the morning, and the drive had been smooth so far. However, little did I know I was going to spend the next two hours cruising through those 18 miles in bumper to bumper traffic.

As the minutes ticked by, traffic started to get heavy. My plans of being there on time, or even finding street parking were jinxed. Sitting in traffic having nothing to do, I observed an interesting phenomenon depicting a particular risk-taking trait of human behavior. The freeway had 4 lanes on each side. The leftmost lane was a High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane, also known as the carpool lane. This means that at certain times of the day during peak hours (from 5 am to 10 am, and then from 3 pm to 7 pm), only vehicles with two or more people could use that lane. This is mostly to encourage people to carpool. Knowing the number of people who drive singly in the US, you would be amazed how empty the HOV lane usually is.

In the process of waiting in bumper to bumper traffic, I observed from my left mirror that more than half the people using that lane were single people in the car. It confused me somewhat, angered me all the more, not only because people were not supposed to break traffic rules, but also because here I was going to be stuck in traffic for the next few hours. None of these people driving singly had any expression of guilt on their faces. When observed closely, it is possible to notice the behavior or facial expression of other drivers. People drove in the “forbidden” lane with a stoic, business-like expression, without caring that they were breaking the law.

As I inched a little forward, I noticed that the cop got hold of one of the girls, and was giving her a traffic violation ticket. Since it was not possible to speed in heavy traffic, and since she was alone, I figured she was getting a ticket for driving in the wrong lane. However, during the entire 18 miles, I just saw 2 cop cars giving tickets.

Now let’s forget morality, traffic rules, and civic sense for a while, and see what’s happening here. I was frustrated as I was caught in heavy traffic for just one day. These people are regular office commuters who need to face this every day. They need to get to work on time. The traffic was horrible even as early as 6:45 in the morning, God knows what it would be at say 9 am. Now the entire 18 mile stretch of road (even more for some) was going to be like this. Who could afford to wait for 2 hours in traffic snarl every day? 

The daily commuters must have figured out that not more than 2-3 cop cars span the entire stretch. With hundreds of people breaking the law, and just 2-3 cop cars in 18 miles, what was the probability of getting caught? If 2-3 people get caught and fined every 18 miles, what is the probability that you will end up being one of them? We are talking probability here, and not morality, okay? For every person getting a traffic ticket, there were hundreds of cars that sped by. So let’s say you get caught once every month for driving in the wrong lane, and then get fined for say $100. That is the price you pay for getting to office on time every day. Since this is not a speeding ticket, I am hoping the insurance premium would not go up every time you got a ticket.

Of course it is all wrong, the idea of having rules is to stick to them as best as you can. But how does one cope when faced with dire situations like this every day? Should they start even earlier, maybe as early as 5 am to reach somewhere at 9 am? Every day? Or just take the risk, pay like a hundred dollars every month (which is about $5 everyday to reach on time, not a lot for people who earn), and move on in life? Certainly the roads were not equipped to handle peak hour traffic without people resorting to unfair means. Clearly there are more cars than what the roads can hold during peak hours. Thus, isn’t this a workable strategy to lessen your stress by not getting caught in traffic for hours? Surely when enough number of people do something that is wrong or forbidden, it does not remain that wrong or forbidden any more.

[To be clear here, I am not advocating for the phenomenon that was going on. I just observed a human behavior in a small sample of people, and tried generating my theory to interpret the risk-taking behaviors of these individuals]



Abhishek Mukherjee said...

Incredibly well-observed and well-reasoned, that one. I wish human behaviour was this dependent on probability in all aspects of life.

Anil P said...

The situation you describe and the response of people seem to suggest a few things about human behavior.

I suppose most people when faced with this situation on a daily basis will take a calculated gamble with their sense of what is right or wrong, possibly rationalising that while this is technically breaking the law, they're only using a near empty lane.

Still others would argue that if the lawmakers are desirous of drivers following the law then maybe they could do something about the traffic situation, holding the administration responsible for the mess.

Unless their breaking of the law in this instance were to harm another, it looks like folks will go ahead and break the law.

Moreover most laws are brought in to facilitate orderly living, and the traffic situation was anything but orderly.

be45eb02-983e-11e0-9f9b-000bcdca4d7a said...

i would rather move closer to the work.

jestingjousts said...

Around 6 am to 8:30 am is generally considered the 'peak rush hour' (I know, 'hour'!). Traffic starts easing off after that and by 9 am roads are generally much better. In Minneapolis, that is (where I live). From my limited excursions in Chicago and New York (bigger cities) this maybe a bit longer. Also the fine for first time violators is $142 in Minneapolis and they go up much more ($440 in California -> For repeat offenders (who are caught), the fines are substantially more, to serve as 1. Deterrent 2. Example

In my experience (I drive 40 mile round trip to work), I have seen very people abusing the HOV lanes.

~ Krishanu

Kolor said...

Most people are not purely coldly rational. That's why moral precepts like upholding the law, believing in god still work. It would be a tragedy for society and humanity when people would no longer believe in ethics, morality and god.