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How can we relieve rush hour?


Congestion on roads and public transport at peak times can have serious consequences, from pollution to exorbitant costs for local authorities and stressed out commuters running late for work. Smoothing out rush-hour traffic is more vital than ever.

It’s a scene any city-dweller is all too familiar with: traffic jams as far as the eye can see, public transport full to bursting and passengers on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Congested roads and saturated public transport at rush hour also take a serious toll on local authorities’ budgets and on the environment. In Europe, traffic congestion costs €100 billion every year and represents an average of 40% lost time for an hour-long trip.

Encouraging new habits

A number of initiatives have been introduced to try to relieve congestion at commuter times, including wider roads, reduced speed limits on major routes, carpooling, and more public transport. However, although beneficial for the environment, these measures actually have little impact on congestion. The last option left is to smooth out rush hours by spreading traffic over a longer length of time.

Peak pricing

Financial deterrents have proven particularly effective in changing the times people travel. With congestion pricing systems, tolls or underground train tickets are more expensive at peak times. The Washington Metro, for example, costs $2 at off-peak times and $2.25 at rush hour. In Stockholm, authorities have introduced a city centre toll that costs more at certain times, resulting in an 18% reduction in both traffic in the area and CO2 emissions. However, these measures disproportionately penalise disadvantaged users, who also tend to have less flexibility in their working hours.

Rewards for changes in behaviour

Gamification – turning a challenge into a game – is also a good way to encourage changes in travel times. To help traffic flow more smoothly at rush hour, users receive points for taking public transport outside peak times and for advising friends to do the same. These points can then be converted into rewards, such as a free trip on public transport or entry into a prize draw. When one such system was tested in Bangalore, India, the average trip time at rush hour fell from 70 minutes to 50 in a few weeks.

For drivers, positive or reverse tolls can encourage changes in habits. Egis Group was the first to develop this concept, with its Netherlands-based subsidiary BNV Mobility rolling out a positive toll system in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht. Drivers were rewarded with a credit of €3 to their bank account or €3.50 to their public transport pass for not using their cars at rush hour and instead travelling earlier or later, taking public transport or using soft mobility methods such as carpooling or cycling. “It’s based on nudge theory,” explains Elena Umanets, who is responsible for developing innovative mobility services at Egis. “People need rewards to change their habits. It’s important to optimize existing infrastructure, and positive tolls are an inexpensive way of doing this. Most importantly, one year after the end of the programme, we’ve observed that 80% of active participants have switched to a new behavioural pattern. They now avoid rush hour or use a combination of different ways to get around.” During the positive toll trial in Rotterdam, traffic at rush hour decreased by 5% to 10%. Combined with working from home initiatives, the reverse toll system has emerged as a sustainable and efficient solution to congested roads.

From improved well-being to reduced stress and savings of time and money, changes in travel methods and times have many advantages for commuters. Employers benefit too, as late arrivals and absences decrease and working conditions improve, leading to greater productivity.

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