Unjamming Traffic

by Michael Mullaney on September 28, 2009

Traffic Jam in Moscow

There’s an excellent story in the Journal of Commerce about professor Jose Holguin-Veras’ research into using financial incentives as a way to convince Manhattan businesses to accept deliveries in the evening and overnight. Shifting even a small percentage of delivery truck traffic from business hours to the night, his research posits, should help noticeably alleviate downtown New York’s infamous congestion and boost its economic performance. It’s simple really: less trucks on the road leaves more room for taxis, shoppers, and tourists.

This is a wonderful example of the breadth and depth of civil engineering. Not only do civil engineers build bridges, strengthen buildings against earthquakes, build better dams and levees, and design highways, they also strive toward better and more efficient use of infrastructure and resources.

Say what you want about the “ivory towers” of universities – reducing traffic jams is something that almost anyone, anywhere can rally behind and appreciate. Along with lowering the collective blood pressure of commuters everywhere, less traffic means quicker trips, less fuel consumption, and, in turn, lower greenhouse gas emissions. Everybody wins.

Here’s a nice bit from the JoC story:

The program uses a key incentive — money — to convince businesses to take off-hour deliveries, in hopes they will reschedule at least a portion of the estimated 2.8 million truck trips a day in and around New York City.

“We’re talking about a policy that is being designed to be business-friendly,” said Jose Holguin-Veras, an expert in freight transportation networks and professor in Rensselaer’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in Troy, N.Y. “Only those companies for which it makes sense financially would do it.”

Shifting even a portion of the city’s truck deliveries to off-peak hours would have a significant impact on congestion, he said. “You don’t have to move every single truck to nighttime delivery. If you move only 10 percent or 20 percent, the congestion savings will be significant.”

Here’s a breakdown of the study’s experimental method:

Funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the $1.9 million project involves more than 20 consignees or receivers in a variety of businesses and about 25 carriers. Companies involved include Foot Locker, with six Manhattan stores; White Rose Food, the largest independent wholesale food distributor in metropolitan New York; and New Deal Logistics of South Kearney, N.J.

The receivers agreed to take deliveries between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. Consignees that complete the month-long test will get $2,000 for each location involved. The researchers will poll businesses on the types of incentives, including tax breaks, that would get them to shift more deliveries to off-peak hours long term.

Check out the project website (particularly the FAQ) for additional details and insight. See also our news release from about two years ago, with the clever headline “Tax Incentives and High-Tech Tools for Night Owls,” to announce Holguin-Veras launching this new research endeavor.

(For those keeping score: Yes, Jose – in addition to be a global leader in traffic modeling – is Rensselaer’s resident artisan carpenter.)