Influencing drivers to reduce traffic congestion

Multidisciplinary collaboration between economists, psychologists, traffic engineers and policy analysts

12 December 2017

The NWO-SURF project U-SMILE revolves around the smart – that is: budget neutral – influencing of commuters to reduce traffic congestion and environmental pollution. ‘We design and study experiments with mixed forms of taxation and rewards, including tradable rush-hour rights’, explains Erik Verhoef, Professor of Spatial Economics at VU Amsterdam and project leader of U-SMILE. ‘In everyday practice, the demand for this type of knowledge is so high that we have our hands full carrying out experiments with our partners from the field.’

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Co-creation for research and everyday practice

The main research question of U-SMILE is: which ‘smart’ measures can we develop to influence the behaviour of drivers with the aim of reducing congestion? Economists, psychologists, traffic engineers and policy analysts have joined forces to solve the problem of traffic jams. ‘We are trying to steer behaviour and use it to circumvent the current resistance towards financial instruments’, says Erik Verhoef. The project is strongly rooted in urban reality, because the case studies are a joint effort of universities together with the Amsterdam Zuidas, Rotterdam, Groningen, and Amsterdam ArenA area. Co-creation is therefore part and parcel of the project.

Virtual reality and real-life experiments

‘We are now at the eve of the ‘lab in the field’ experiment within a project. The Verkeersondermening Rotterdam is our partner for this. That is a public-private partnership between Rotterdam City Council and the Metropolitan region Rotterdam The Hague, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and the Port of Rotterdam. Together, they are trying to sustainably improve the accessibility of the southern Randstad conurbation with a range of innovative solutions that involve a mix of services and measures. The ultimate aim is a long-term change in behaviour. We will now experiment with ‘tradable rights’ for rush-hour travel. In this first experiment, we are creating a virtual market where participants can trade with each other. We will use serious gaming to let them consider their own mobility and take decisions about that. Tradable rights will play an important role in that process. The participants are already experienced in avoiding rush-hour traffic. Once we have completed this virtual experiment, we will test it in real life on the road. The virtual part of the experiment is already very realistic in that sense.’

Purchasing, selling and using

The participants will play the serious game for two periods of one week. In between the two periods, the researchers will adjust the game. ‘The actual experiment in the Rotterdam region will last for more than two weeks, but we have not yet finalised its exact duration.’ Besides the behavioural data that the experiments will yield, data will also be obtained from surveys. ‘That will enable us to form a highly complete picture of the behavioural choices people will make. You need to realise that everybody can make his or her own choices within the system; people exhibit individual differences even if their circumstances initially appear to be exactly the same. They can both live in a terraced house in a commuter town near Rotterdam, work on the same days of the week in the centre of the city and be responsible for the care of two young children. And yet they can still make different choices. One will use her tradable right on Monday and the other on Tuesday. Yet another will decide to sell his rights one week but to keep them the next.’

Maximum collaboration

The traffic experts of U-SMILE at Delft University of Technology are doing the necessary modelling parallel to the experiments, says Verhoef. ‘In effect, we will work together even more closely than we were actually planning to. We want to maximise the collaboration between the traffic expert and the economist by allowing them to work together more often in the same room. This is in fact a long-standing wish of our supervisors. I have known my colleagues at Delft University of Technology for many years and we have wanted to work together more closely for a long period of time. This is our opportunity to deploy the strengths of both disciplines to make mobility more sustainable. We know of very large-scale traffic models where the economic behavioural modelling is not always consistent. This is because behavioural economic models often work at a small-scale with small networks. Now we are working on a joint model at a medium-size scale by combining the best of both worlds.’

Considerable interest from municipalities

The collaboration with parties from the field is proceeding well, Verhoef continues. ‘The partners are different in each phase of the research. All of our attention is currently focused on Rotterdam, whereas will collaborate more with Amsterdam in a later phase, when the roadworks around the Zuidas area of the city start. At that time, we will do an experiment on the A10 ring road. It is just as well that the cities are not all knocking on our door at once, as we can only keep a limited number of balls up in the air at a given time. The municipalities have shown a considerable interest in our research. They have a direct interest in the knowledge that we are developing. Therefore right from the start of U-SMILE we have not suffered from a lack of interest and publicity.’ However, this has led to the researchers facing other challenges as well. ‘Things are moving really fast. We are currently working really hard to keep up with the developments and finish everything on time in Rotterdam. But we are not complaining, as that is what makes the work fun, and everything is proceeding in a very constructive manner.’

Aligned interests

Verhoef: ‘As researchers within the consortium, we are responsible for leading the research and we are determining the content of the first virtual experiment, which will therefore fit seamlessly within our research. In the later experiment, partners from the field will play a greater role in determining the exact course to follow. I think this is a great example of how you can jointly set up research. We all have our own interests, and although these are not the same, they are aligned. Research and policy really can benefit from each other here, and we do not have to get in each other's way. No longer – thank goodness! The political veto on pricing policy has now disappeared. The new Dutch government has opened the door to experiments. That is already quite a step, even though it does not mean that a national pricing policy will now immediately follow.’

Further information

Smart Urban Regions for the Future (SURF) is a programme for knowledge development and application. Consortia of academic researchers and professionals from the field in urban regions are working together to develop knowledge at the interfaces of spatial planning, living, accessibility, economics and governance. The programme will deliver new knowledge and trading perspectives for Dutch urban regions. SURF is an initiative of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and the Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Relations, in collaboration with NWO and Platform31.

SURF is part of the NWO theme Connecting Sustainable Cities (VerDuS). Information about the SURF programme is available on the website of VerDuS, and information about the U-Smile project on this webpage.


Source: NWO