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Time-Shifting the Morning School Rush

If you can't avoid a car commute, maybe you can slightly change what time you do it.


Universities often act like tiny little microcosms of cities, with their own unique populations, borders and urban forms. And, like most real cities, they also have their own traffic patterns. Rush hour exists even in the Ivy League and Ivory Tower, and just like people in any other city city, those stuck in a university's morning crush are not happy about their commute's congestion.

In an effort to cut down on the morning zoo, researchers at Stanford University have launched a study and program aimed at shifting traffic patterns by encouraging drivers to slightly alter when they arrive at campus. To entice people to change their arrival times, the researchers have turned the morning commute into something of a game. Dubbed Capri, or Congestion and Parking Relief Incentives, the program awards points to enrolled drivers who arrive either before or after the 9 a.m.-to-10 a.m. and 4 p.m.-to-5 p.m. rush hours. Participants' arrival times are tracked through RFID tags and drivers are entered in a raffle that awards random cash prizes. The jackpot? A high of $50 and a low of $2. Not much, sure, but the researchers have found that even meager rewards – and the even more meager chance of actually winning those rewards – can have a significant effect on people's behaviors.

There's also an option to forego the raffle and instead rake in a 10-cent reward for each off-peak trip into or out of campus.

Led by Balaji Prabhakar, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, the researchers are hoping to create about a 10 percent shift in drivers out of those peak times in the mornings and afternoons. They say that this slight shift in traffic patterns can have a major impact on congestion.

School traffic, from universities down to primary schools, is seen as a major problem. The traffic caused by drivers dropping off kids at school has been found to represent between 20 and 25 percent of all morning traffic in the U.S. According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, one simple way to cut down this traffic is to turn car trips into non-car trips, an effort the organization has been pushing through programs aimed at organizing neighborhood "walking school buses," improving pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and strategies within schools to encourage walk days.

In the face of such a simple solution to car congestion, the elaborate RFID tags and point systems of the Stanford project may seem a little extravagant. But it's also a reality that some schools and the communities in which they're located are just not well-suited to non-car trips. Driving, for many students and parents, is often the only option.

But that's not to say congestion is the necessary outcome. In one lower-tech response to morning school-related congestion, officials in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, have just launched a test project to stagger the start times of 19 schools. Due to the sprawling layout of Al Ain, the second biggest city in Abu Dhabi, the vast majority of students arrive to school by private car. And these 19 schools are all located along one street, Khalid bin Sultan street, which has a total of 33 schools and has been nicknamed, appropriately, "the schools road." According to The National, more than 32,000 students are brought to this street of schools every day. By setting three separate start times for these 19 test school – about 10,000 students will start at 7:30 a.m., another 10,000 at 8:00 a.m. and 2,000 at 8:15 a.m. – they are hoping to reduce what has become a crowded and dangerous morning rush.

As this clever human infographic video from GOOD shows, shifting even a small percentage of people out of cars and into public transit or active transportation modes can play a huge role in reducing congestion on roads.

But in places where driving is the only reasonable option, the efforts of the Stanford researchers and the trial school start time staggering in Al Ain show that a simple redistribution of traffic can take the crush out of rush hour.

Photo credit: pscf11 / Flickr.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.