The Diverging Diamond

Last week I lamented that nobody is concerned with the gains from improved traffic management. Right on cue, as if they were waiting to refute my complaint, the Chicago Tribune introduces us to the “diverging  diamond interchange” (DDI).  Although the design temporarily requires traffic to drive on the left side of the road, it’s better than that of standard diamond interchanges  in almost every way.

A DDI allows traffic getting on and off an expressway to flow freely without stopping or yielding to other vehicles. It’s also considered safer and often cheaper to build than standard diamond interchanges. Experts say DDIs have fewer “conflict points” — a technical term for places where crashes can occur — than standard interchanges.

Sounds like a resounding success for our ability to innovate, right? Well, not so much.

Saiko said Versailles, France, has used the design since the 1970s. So why, after decades of building interstates and expressways, did it take so long for the concept to reach the U.S.?

Highway designers and engineers are wary of taking any chances with millions of dollars of public money at stake, Saiko theorized. “Nobody (in the U.S.) wanted to be the first to try it. Nobody wants to be the guinea pig,” he said.

When public dollars are at stake a low-risk, high-reward option still entail too much risk. The Obama administration has laudably been more apt to play “science lab” with public money, but at the state level where most of these types of decisions are made it’s nearly impossible.

Hopefully the DDI will be successful in America and lead to more experimentation in the future.  Infrastructure innovation is one of the few areas where there is still low hanging fruit in terms of  implementing ideas from other parts of the world.

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The Laffer Curve of Branding

Lindsey Robertson attempts to discern why the Old Spice Guy’s popularity hasn’t led to an increase in sales.

The Old Spice ads were so successful in raising brand awareness that no dude wanted to have a bottle of the stuff in his shower. The funny ads actually gave the product embarrassing or negative connotations.

I think something slightly different is happening here. Advertising works best on a unconscious level.  We see a product and want it without consciously realizing it’s because advertising has made us associate the product with a successful sex life.

But when advertising is too successful, when consumers recall an ad so well that its messages are consciously contemplated, the desire to not be manipulated by advertising takes over and sales fall.  Call it the Laffer Curve of branding.

This may be what’s happening with Old Spice.  Somebody having positive thoughts as they contemplate buying an Old Spice product will be conscious their affinity is due to the advertising campaign. At this point the desire to avoid being manipulated kicks in, and the person chooses a different brand of body wash.

Nudging Traffic

It’s the middle of the night and you’re zooming down an empty two-lane highway. You pass a sign: “Left lane closed – 1 mile.” No worries. It’s 1:34 AM. Shouldn’t be a problem.  And then you hit the backup.  The endless sea of red brake lights appears out of nowhere.

Why? Why can’t two relatively empty lanes of cars efficiently merge into one without grinding to a halt?

The culprit is the free rider problem.  If every driver merges at the first opportunity, traffic would continue at three-quarters speed. However, as some of these “good samaritans” merge early and efficiently, the left lane becomes faster. Looking to take advantage, aggressive drivers  stay in the left lane as long as possible. This leads to a disproportionate amount of cars all merging at the last possible moment.  Rather than merging at half speed, these cars are forced to merge while nearly stopped.

Can anything be done to fix this problem?

Things would clearly improve if cars  were forced to merge before the last possible moment.   A series of signs could potentially warn drivers that road work beings in 3000 feet, but that they must merge in the next 2000 feet.  Authorities must be careful not to enforce the new law too strictly (perhaps via cameras), otherwise it merely creates the exact same problem at the new “last change to merge” point.  Alternatively, if the rule isn’t enforced enough to create a deterrent to late merging, it will also serve no purpose.

You can also take matters into your own hands, as I sometimes do when road rage gets the best of me. My solution? As I get close to the merge area I drive in between the the two lanes. That forces all the “free-riders” in the left lane to merge behind me rather than at the bottle neck up ahead.

Although we tend to overlook traffic as a great scourge of society, traffic robs people of time, a commodity whose flexibility makes it infinitely valuable.  Some simple congestion innovation/regulation could save hundreds of thousands of man-hours, and it’s a shame the powers that be aren’t more concerned with it.