It’s so counter-intuitive that it’s called Braess’ Paradox: How can closing a road actually make everyone’s commute shorter? You would think that blocking a route would be an inconvenience, but under some circumstances it’s actually for the best.
Doesn’t sound right, does it? Here’s the situation: Assume drivers are rational and intelligent. I know, that’s a stretch – I grew up around DC. But bear with me. If there are multiple paths that people can take, they should in theory find an equilibrium between them. If one path has less traffic and takes less time, more people will switch to it until it loses its advantage. If one path starts longer than the others, nobody will use it until the other paths get congested enough to make it worth it.
So how can an extra path actually make the average commute time longer? Shouldn’t an extra path just give people more options to choose from, and ultimately find the best equilibrium?
It turns out that when some roads are more prone to traffic than others, it can create Braess’ Paradox. Imagine that some roads aren’t as affected by traffic – I picture these as the local roads with traffic lights. They add a fixed amount of time to your commute, say 45 minutes. The other roads are heavily dependent on traffic – these highways can either be wonderfully fast or a mess of stop-and-go congestion, depending on how many other people are on them. The average time it takes to drive on them is the number of cars over 100.
(Image modified from Wikipedia)
Let’s say there are 4000 cars driving from the start to finish. Without the connector (dotted in the diagram), an equilibrium forms where half the drivers (2000 cars) take the top route through A, and half take the bottom route through B. The highway takes 2000/100 = 20 minutes, and the local road takes 45 minutes. So half the population spends 45 minutes on a local street, followed by 20 minutes on a highway, and the other half of the drivers spend 20 minutes on a highway, followed by 45 minutes on a local street. Everyone gets to their destination in 65 minutes. Nobody has any incentive to switch.
But what if a new connector is opened between A and B, allowing people to go straight from one highway to the other? Now everyone thinks to themselves, “Hey, why spend 45 minutes on a local street when I could spend 20 minutes on the highway? I’m going to take the route Start –> A –> B –> Finish, and shave 25 minutes off of my commute time!”
Of course, if everyone thinks that way, there are now double the cars on each highway than there were before, and it’s half as fast: now each highway takes 40 minutes, not 20 minutes. That’s still 5 minutes less than the 45 minutes it takes to drive on the local street, though, so everyone still has an incentive to take the highway.
So in the end, how has the connector affected people’s commutes? Everyone’s commute used to be 65 minutes; now, everyone’s commute is 80 minutes. And to make it stranger, there’s no better path to take – anyone considering switching to their original route would be looking at an 85 minute drive.
How does this happen?
How can opening a new, super-fast connector make commutes worse? It comes down to the price of anarchy and people’s selfish motivations. With the connector open, each set of cars has the option to clog up the other half’s highways – saving themselves 5 minutes but adding 20 minutes to the other guys’ commute.
It’s like the prisoner’s dilemma: Each driver has the motivation to take the highways, even though it damages the overall system. Without the connector, nobody is allowed to “defect” for personal gain. In the traditional prisoner’s dilemma, it would be like a mafia boss keeping all his criminals anonymous. Without the option to rat each other out, criminals would avoid the selfish temptation and the entire system is better off.
Braess’ Paradox isn’t purely hypothetical – it has real-world implications in city planning. According to this New York Times article titled What if They Closed 42d Street and Nobody Noticed?, “When a network is not congested, adding a new street will indeed make things better. But in the case of congested networks, adding a new street probably makes things worse at least half the time, mathematicians say.” That’s shocking. My intuitions about how traffic works were way off.
Lastly, via Presh Talkwalkar’s fantastic game theory blog, Mind Your Decisions, (which brought Braess’ paradox to my attention) there’s a great video of the paradox physically in action with springs. Check it out: