Friday, June 01, 2007

Social Norms for System Stabilization

Yesterday afternoon was a busy one for me. I had to work, I had to do some house and yard work, and then I had to pick up my little brother from the Greyhound Station. Throw in a pretty powerful thunderstorm that my rose bushes will love over the next couple of days and I expected traffic into the city to be a bit rough.

And then there was a vaguely specific bomb threat against the three great natural choke-points on most regional commutes --- Fort Pitt, Squirrel Hill and Liberty Tunnels. The state police shut down these tunnels at the height of rush hour in order to do a quick scan, thus forcing commuters to either sit still or find alternative, lower capacity routes out of the city.

As I was driving into the city via Squirrel Hill, inbound traffic was a mess while outbound traffic was at a standstill. The system had overloaded. Part of the problem of the overload was individualistic gain seeking at the cost of significant system delay. The most common and costly means I saw was the car seeing that the line that they were in was not moving, but still proceeding into the middle of an intersection and sitting there for two light cycles blocking all movement.

I wonder how much system resiliency can be built by changing basic social norms so that the imperative to be an asshole that freezes the local network is decreased. If everyone had not gridlocked, the traffic snarl-up through a major alternative route would have been significantly less.

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