Thursday, June 16, 2005

Mr. Smith Does Traffic

Driving in the Northern Virginia 'burbs can be a competitive adventure. Often described as the rat-race, wave after wave of commuters herk-and-jerk their way down our increasingly crowded roadways. Who likes sitting in traffic? Even those that enjoy driving wish they could safely arrive at their destination more quickly.

I have a preferred route when travelling to and from work, but if the lights or traffic just aren't going my way I can make a turn and take an alternate route. WTOP graces us with traffic and weather together on the 8's so we can intellegently choose the best route. Getting home faster is good for me, but it helps other people too.

I have very little concern about the commute time of random strangers, but my actions help them get home more quickly. I see congestion and I follow my own interest - but in doing that I get out of the way for others. I help distribute traffic more evenly. My little car makes very little impact on the average travel time of the DC Metro commuter, but a whole lot of people making decisions impacts traffic greatly. Out of the chaos of all those individuals comes a strange sort of organization. If the roads and number of commuters stayed the same, could a well-intentioned bureaucrat do a better job directing traffic than all the self-motivated individuals?

Those who stayed awake in Economics 101 will recognize this as yet another example of the "invisible hand", an idea introduced by Adam Smith in his keystone book The Wealth of Nations. Could he be right? Even though we are selfish and greedy could we be inadvertently helping society?