Conventional traffic engineering assumes that given no increase in vehicles, more roads mean less congestion. So when planners in Seoul tore down a six-lane highway a few years ago and replaced it with a five-mile-long park, many transportation professionals were surprised to learn that the city’s traffic flow had actually improved, instead of worsening. “People were freaking out,” recalls Anna Nagurney, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who studies computer and transportation networks. “It was like an inverse of Braess’s paradox.”

The brainchild of mathematician Dietrich Braess of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, the eponymous paradox unfolds as an abstraction: it states that in a network in which all the moving entities rationally seek the most efficient route, adding extra capacity can actually reduce the network’s overall efficiency. The Seoul project inverts this dynamic: closing a highway—that is, reducing network capacity—improves the system’s effectiveness.

Although Braess’s paradox was first identified in the 1960s and is rooted in 1920s economic theory, the concept never gained traction in the automobile-oriented U.S. But in the 21st century, economic and environmental problems are bringing new scrutiny to the idea that limiting spaces for cars may move more people more efficiently. A key to this counterintuitive approach to traffic design lies in manipulating the inherent self-interest of all drivers.

A case in point is “The Price of Anarchy in Transportation Networks,” published last September in Physical Review Letters by Michael Gastner, a computer scientist at the Santa Fe Institute, and his colleagues. Using hypothetical and real-world road networks, they explain that drivers seeking the shortest route to a given destination eventually reach what is known as the Nash equilibrium, in which no single driver can do any better by changing his or her strategy unilaterally. The problem is that the Nash equilibrium is less efficient than the equilibrium reached when drivers act unselfishly—that is, when they coordinate their movements to benefit the entire group.

The “price of anarchy” is a measure of the inefficiency caused by selfish drivers. Analyzing a commute from Harvard Square to Boston Common, the researchers found that the price can be high—selfish drivers typically waste 30 percent more time than they would under “socially optimal” conditions.

The solution hinges on Braess’s paradox, Gastner says. “Because selfish drivers optimize a wrong function, they can be led to a better solution if you remove some of the network links,” he explains. Why? In part because closing roads makes it more difficult for individual drivers to choose the best (and most selfish) route. In the Boston example, Gastner’s team found that six possible road closures, including parts of Charles and Main streets, would reduce the delay under the selfish-driving scenario. (The street closures would not slow drivers if they were behaving unselfishly.)

Another kind of anarchy could actually speed travel as well—namely, a counterintuitive traffic design strategy known as shared streets. The practice encourages driver anarchy by removing traffic lights, street markings, and boundaries between the street and sidewalk. Studies conducted in northern Europe, where shared streets are common, point to improved safety and traffic flow.

The idea is that the absence of traffic regulation forces drivers to take more responsibility for their actions. “The more uncomfortable the driver feels, the more he is forced to make eye contact on the street with pedestrians, other drivers and to intuitively go slower,” explains Chris Conway, a city engineer with Montgomery, Ala. Last April the city converted a signalized downtown intersection into a European-style cobblestone plaza shared by cars, bikes and pedestrians—one of a handful of such projects that are springing up around the country.

Although encouraging vehicular chaos seems at odds with the ideas presented in the price of anarchy study, both strategies downplay the role of the individual driver in favor of improved outcomes for everyone. They also suggest a larger transportation niche for bicycles and pedestrians. As the Obama administration prepares to invest in the biggest public works project since the construction of the interstate highway system, the notion that fewer, more inclusive roads yield better results is especially timely.

Faster Streets with Less Parking
New strategies in parking management could also improve urban traffic flow, remarks Patrick Siegman, a principal with Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates in San Francisco, a transportation-planning firm. In a misguided effort to reduce congestion, planners in the 1950s required developers to provide a minimum number of free parking spaces—a strategy that “completely ignored” basic economics, Siegman says, referring to how lower prices
increase demand.

Now limited urban space and concerns about global warming are inspiring city planners to eliminate these requirements. In San Francisco, for example, developers must restrict parking to a maximum of 7 percent of a building’s square footage, a negligible amount. Although downtown employment has increased, traffic congestion is actually declining, Seigard says. With fewer free spaces to park, drivers seem to be switching modes, relying more on mass transit, cycling and just plain walking.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Detours by Design".