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August 08, 2008

More on highway game theory

A couple of years ago, I wrote about what I called "highway game theory." The question I posed was this:

Assume you have to comply with all traffic laws. You're on a highway with four lanes in each direction, and traffic is fairly heavy. You see a sign telling you that the two left lanes will be closed in 2000 feet. What's your best strategy to minimize the time you will be delayed? (Using the shoulder isn't a legal answer, because the traffic laws don't permit it.)

Let's call the four lanes 1, 2, 3, and 4, from left to right, where 1 and 2 are the left lanes that are going to be closed, and 3 and 4 are the two right lanes. Which lane or lanes do you drive in?
You can read my analysis at the link, along with an economic analysis from Three Sources in the update.

But now, the problem has made an appearance in an article in the New York Times Magazine, in which a native of northern California makes the astonishing discovery that some people try to use their best strategy on the highways. She calls these people "sidezoomers," as distinct from "lineuppers" like her. She despises sidezoomers.

I'm not really sympathetic, and I don't like the term "sidezoomer." I'm a strategizer, and I recognize there are also some total jerks on the roads. But there no moral principle that forces you to get in line way ahead of time.

And even her experts agree with me to an extent:
The experts drew schematics in my notebook for me. They asked me to envision rice pouring smoothly through a kitchen funnel. They pointed out, as a Virginia Tech computer-science professor named Chris Barrett put it, that “if you move over too soon, you have this big empty piece of real estate, which could absorb that many more cars.” And I would say, yes, but they still all have to squish into the same two-lane tunnel, right? And the experts would say yes, but what really botches the flow is the stop-and-go part — which is accentuated both by the guy hanging around up there trying to last-minute jam his way in and by the hostile party in the Subaru who won’t let him, thus prompting him to try again in front of the next car, whose driver brakes while deciding whether to go into high-, medium- or low-level snit, and so on.
I'll leave you with the names that another of her experts uses: cheaters and vigilantes. Cheating may not be desirable, but I'd say it's the vigilantes who create the bigger problem. As the highway cop she interviews puts it:
“It’s not a matter of fairness or unfairness,” Morgan said. “It’s a matter of there’s no violation, no one is being injured. Ergo, chill out. Enjoy life. You’re spending too much energy pounding the dashboard.”
Yes, indeed.

UPDATE (8/17): Here are the letters responding to Gorney's article. Don't miss the second one, making the political link.