Traffic jams are an absurd inconvenience of modern life © Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

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The writer is the mayor of Stockholm

Few movie scenes do a better job of conveying frustration than the traffic jam that opens the comedy Office Space. Drivers inch along a California highway in a pathetic dance of honking and changing lanes. Yet this quotidian nuisance could be mitigated with the same strategy that is being used to fight the pandemic.

“Flattening the curve” aims to distribute the number of new Covid-19 infections over time. Social distancing and mask-wearing slow the spread of the virus so that ventilators, beds and healthcare workers do not become overwhelmed. Infrastructure — from hospitals and highways to power grids — fails when demand exceeds peak capacity. By “scheduling” healthcare demand, flattening the curve has saved lives.

Urban infrastructure suffers from similar peaks of demand. Morning commuters overwhelm highways. Workers form queues when they go out to lunch and push power grids to their limits when they return home. Widening roads and expanding restaurants creates expensive infrastructure that goes unused for most of the day. By reducing peak extremes, we can make cities more efficient. 

Covid-19 has wrought changes to work patterns that were inconceivable only a year ago. Today people work on a staggered basis, using the office at different times to avoid overcrowding. Beyond reducing contagion risk, this practice spreads out the times when people use roads. In the future, employees might attend a 9am meeting over Zoom and arrive at the office at noon. Others might leave at 3pm and wrap-up the day online. Rush hour would be a thing of the past. 

But cities must provide incentives. Digital platforms can help. In Singapore, drivers pay automatic congestion tolls based on the volume of traffic. This model, known as electronic road pricing, has reduced peak demand in Singapore for decades, despite more cars being on the road. As the internet of things grows more sophisticated, this model can be further refined with the power of digital sensing and incentives, perhaps via blockchain.

Innovations must also serve the collective good. Congestion fees encourage some to change their habits, but many people — including warehouse workers, teachers and Uber drivers — cannot always choose to work flexibly or afford regressive tolls. Just as flattening the curve of Covid-19 requires financial support for those who are not able to work remotely, urban infrastructure must be equitable. In the case of congestion taxes, people could receive discounts based on disability, profession or socio-economic status. Revenue could help reduce public transport prices and subsidise fossil fuel-free cars.

Infrastructure will always face moments of high demand. Natural disasters leave citizens no choice but to evacuate, for example. In happier circumstances, such as when millions tune in to watch the Super Bowl, a strained power grid and overcrowded sports bars are the price of shared experience.

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Still, “flattening the curve” has potential for our cities. A similar approach in the electricity sector, known as “peak shaving”, has been shown to save money. When one utility company in Oklahoma switched 20 per cent of customers to a variable pricing model, it was able to shelve plans for a “peaker plant” facility, which would have generated power for small portions of the day. Similarly, urban congestion could be eased without adding more infrastructure, but through better use. In other words: less asphalt, more silicon chips.

Daily traffic jams are an absurd inconvenience of modern life. Covid-19 has proved that changing routines is possible, so we can decide how our cities function. Flattening the curve has been a painful response to a crisis but, in cities, it can be used as a strategy to bring greater wellbeing to our everyday lives.

Carlo Ratti, professor of urban innovation at MIT, was co-author

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