Game Theory Might Explain Why Traffic Apps Make Traffic Worse

The recent proliferation of traffic apps like Waze that promise to help you avoid backups and slowdowns are now being credited with perversely slowing everybody down and UC Berkeley’s Alexandre Bayen, director of its Institute of Transportation Studies, argues that we can explain why with game theory.

That’s the theory whose creator was biographized in A Beautiful Mind. Simply put, it posits that not only can we achieve more if we work together, but when we compete we’re likelier to hold each other back than gain an advantage. And that’s pretty much what’s happening with traffic apps.

Bayen uses the example of a crash on a California freeway, wherein 20% of drivers are alerted to the crash via Waze (or whatever). These people jump off the freeway at the nearest off-ramp, sending them down residential streets.

Although that’s only 20% of the people on the highway, it’s still more than the side streets can handle, causing a secondary backup and frustrating residents and drivers.

Worse still, the people on the highway are backed up, too, because the off-ramp is overwhelmed, causing a tertiary backup that lasts even longer than the original slowing that caused by the accident.

But wait, like a TV sales pitch, there’s more. Not only does Waze cause a secondary and tertiary backup, it causes a quaternary backup going the other because of rubberneckers.

The solution? Listen to your hippy parents and work together. Or, at least, app developers have to listen to their hippy parents to work collaboratively and with cities to make all traffic move faster before any of it can move faster.