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A Game Plan to Beat Back Rush-Hour Traffic

Networks expert recommends carrot, not stick.

Denise Murphy

ON A ROLL: Prabhakar; PhD student Deepak Merugu, designer of the game (see photo album); transportation planner Angus Davol.

View photo album >>

First Bangalore, India. Then Singapore. Now Stanford. At the rate he's going, Professor Balaji Prabhakar gives the impression he could run the world. But it's just our cars he has his eyes on.

Prabhakar, a professor in the computer science and electrical engineering departments, is becoming a global traffic guru. He has been crafting a playful way to reduce congestion, and he's bringing his concepts to the Farm, starting in January. In conjunction with Parking & Transportation Services, Prabhakar will oversee a three-year project intended to reduce the number of cars arriving on campus from 8 to 9 a.m. and leaving from 5 to 6 p.m.

Maintaining "no new net commute trips" is a condition of the University's general use permit from Santa Clara County. Stanford has succeeded in keeping peak-time vehicle trips under those baseline amounts—3,474 for the morning rush and 3,591 for the afternoon—established in 2001.

But despite Stanford's incentive-infused programs such as the 9-year-old Commute Club, the challenge increases, "as new buildings are going up and new expansion projects are taking place," notes Prabhakar, who studies the operation of networks. "Smaller things are getting bigger." For Prabhakar, who in 2008 had success using innovative incentives with Infosys employees in Bangalore, the Stanford effort is on a continuum with more ambitious projects.

"The significance," he says of his work on traffic congestion, "is twofold: a system that uses incentives rather than disincentives [such as increasing charges for commuting], and second, the belief that what happens at Stanford can be extrapolated to cities [elsewhere]."

Prabhakar was busy this fall preparing the launch of a scheme in Singapore. The heart of the incentive technique is the chance for people to win random cash prizes by altering their commuting habits. But it's the full range of Prabhakar's work, on topics from the nature of congestion to social structures to the psychology behind incentives, that's garnering international attention. As the Economist noted, Prabhakar's solutions particularly appeal, compared to attempts in cities including London to deter traffic by levying fees.

The Stanford incentives were being worked out this fall, including the possibility of striking deals with area retailers to redeem discounts commuters earn by avoiding peak-time trips. But the most powerful inducement is likely to be what amounts to an online video game, in which commuters get a shot at winning $100. The game is a tool for making the most of about $3,000 available for cash rewards each week, except during summer and school breaks. Commuters will use credits they've earned to play a version of Chutes and Ladders that has proven addictive in every test Prabhakar has run.

"The thing is," he explains, "what do you do when you have small amounts of money and how does that end up being interesting and attractive? This goes back to our original research project in Bangalore with Infosys, which is where we hit upon this idea." Rather than offering equally tiny sums to everyone earning credits, "You instead think of a random payoff scheme." And the lure strengthens when participants also go online to compare their results with those of friends and co-workers.

The project has $3 million from a U.S. Department of Transportation grant and matching funds. Most of that goes toward research costs and equipment, such as a system to scan and record ID cards for the cars of participating drivers.

Prabhakar appreciates the chance to influence and experiment with a societal network, interplaying with his usual work with computer networks. For an academic, he says, "that's an amazing feature."

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