Human settlements have always had congestion problems. From the very first time an individual had to look beyond a communal cave or fortified walls to find sufficient space for the activities of daily living, the areas people inhabit have been overcrowded in one way or another. If the animal kingdom is any indication, it is likely that even prior to the evolution of homo sapiens that human precursors faced overcrowding. Indeed, the search for land with sufficient resources is undoubtedly one of the factors which led to the diaspora of the human race.
The 21st century would be in many ways unrecognizable to the Neanderthals and early human cave-dwellers, but the problem of human overcrowding remains a very pertinent one. Even as populations grow in absolute terms the worst of the Malthusian predictions have been avoided. However, while the global population, unfortunate examples notwithstanding, produces sufficient food resources, is it also true that urban areas in particular have not been able to avoid problems caused by pure space limitations. These problems manifest themselves in living and working space to some extent, but they are all the more prevalent with regard to access of living and working space. In other words, the daily commute.
The very roads which governments created to get people out of cities and into suburbs are now used to get back into cities for the workday. This has led to epic congestion in many of the cities of the world. Urban planners have tried many solutions to this type of problem. Some play around with taxes as a solution, with congestion charging schemes popping up around the world. Such schemes can be based on time of day or by geographic area. Some roads have tolls. Some jurisdictions charge high excise rates on vehicles to discourage purchases. Parking restrictions are initiated and enforced. As a practical matter, some of these are above all revenue generation schemes, but each nonetheless should have a result of getting cars off the road.
Economic literature and common sense both tell us that when options are deemed to be unattractive, people look for substitutes. In the case of commuting, this means that where stimuli make car travel unattractive, people switch to public transportation. However, at some point the scales tip, public transportation becomes overused and creates brand new frustrations for customers. Any of our readers who have faced long daily commutes with a mouth full of elbow and daily dose of chronically trampled feet will need no help imagining what these frustrations might be.
So what to do? Assuming that for any number of reasons, public transportation is preferable to mass auto use, one solution would be to create more public transportation infrastructure. However, this is costly and often difficult from a zoning/planning perspective. Another solution would be to get people to use public transportation more efficiently. It is safe to assume that people spend no more time on public transportation than is necessary, so this efficiency will not come from actual use. However, it could come from what time transportation is used.
Many of our readers may not be intimately familiar with the concept, but a vast number of salaried workers still work a 9-5 shift. This is why the roads and rails of the world are so busy during the roughly two hours before and two hours after this stretch (rush hour, it is clear to commuters, is a term of convenience only). What if the traditional 9-5 were not the norm, however? What if employees arrived and left work during alternative times?
Though some urban areas have systems in place to stimulate such behavior, (off-peak pricing and congestion charges come to mind) it is still on the employer with a typical 9-5 approach to allow its employees to arrive and/or leave on an alternative schedule. Otherwise, the types of approaches which cities use now often prove fruitless. Therefore one clear solution to congestion issues would be to provide tax credits or other incentives to employers who introduce alternative hour work days.
Such a scheme wouldn't, of course, be a panacea. For one thing, global population growth has exploded over the past few generations and looks certain to continue on a positive path, meaning that more comprehensive approaches will be required in many areas. There may also be issues that would need to be worked out on the enforcement front. Some might argue that stretching out rush hour further might put even more stress on the system. On a more individual level, some people will want to continue with a 9-5 schedule for childcare reasons, ease of scheduling or the simple reason that 'that's how I have always done it'.
However, there are surely those late risers who would value an 11-7 shift, or the early birds who would value a 7:30 to 3:30. In fact, in our global economy, there may be some companies that would have compelling reasons to re-align and set a workday more in-line with that of foreign colleagues. And, as many commuters would no doubt attest, there is a 'window' for them to leave their doors which allows them to avoid the worst of the traffic, both on road and on rail, on most days. This window often happens to be open a little earlier than would otherwise be convenient. Why not make it more attractive to leave during that window? What if that window could be opened wider for everyone?
Commuting in the future necessarily has to include better infrastructure. This concept doesn't solve that problem, and it has its kinks. However, if put into place in a thoughtful way, it could be a novel, cheap and effective contributing factor in reducing congestion in many cities around the world. If any of our readers have heard of such schemes, either proposed or in practice, or have any other novel approaches to reducing congestion, we would be happy to hear them in the comments section below.