Kids eating ice cream.
It's free cone day! Toby Talbot/AP

When it comes to our road system, Ben & Jerry’s annual ice-cream giveaway has much to teach us.

Today’s that day, folks. Ben and Jerry are giving away free ice cream to everyone who comes by their stores. Whether you’re hankering for Cherry Garcia or Chunky Monkey, you can now get it for absolutely zero price.

Well, there is that one thing: You’re going to have to wait in line, and probably for a long time. As you’re standing there, it would be a good time for you to ponder the valuable lesson that Ben and Jerry are providing in the fundamentals of transportation economics.

You’ll note that unlike the average day at a Ben & Jerry’s, when you might have to wait in line a for a minute or two to get your favorite flavor, now you’re going to end up waiting twenty minutes, or a half hour, or possibly longer. In terms of customers served and gallons scooped, this is going to be their biggest day of the year—last time they gave out a million scoops of ice cream worldwide.

You’ll probably also notice that most of the people standing in line are people who aren’t working nine-to-five. Not many investment bankers or plumbers, but lots of students, moms with small kids, and people who have at least part of the day off from work.

Make no mistake, although you’re not laying out any cash for your ice cream, you are paying for it: with your time. Let’s say that you’d pay $2.50 for that scoop of Phish Food (they’re a bit smaller than regulation on free cone day). If you have to wait half an hour, and you value your time at say, $15 per hour, that $2.50 scoop really cost you something like $7.50. It’s a safe bet that most of the people waiting in line value their time at something less than $5 an hour if they’re willing to wait that long for a “free” cone. Also, if you really want ice cream, and are pressed for time, there’s no way that you’re going to jump to the head of the line, no matter how much you’d be willing to pay.

Substitute “freeway” for “free cone” and you’ve got a pretty good description of how transportation economics works. When it comes to our road system, every rush hour is like free cone day at Ben & Jerry’s. The customers (drivers) are paying zero for their use of the limited capacity of the road system, and we’re rationing this valuable product based on people’s willingness to tolerate delays (with the result that lot’s of people who don’t attach a particularly high value to their time are slowing down things for everyone).

If Ben & Jerry’s were run by traffic engineers, instead of smart business people (albeit smart business people with a strong social-minded streak), they’d look at these long lines and tell Ben and Jerry that they really need to expand their stores. After all, the long lines of people waiting to get ice cream represent “congestion” and “delay,” that can only be solved by building more and bigger ice-cream stores. And thanks to what you might call the “fundamental law of ice-cream congestion,” building more stores might shorten lines a little, but it would also likely prompt more people to stand in line to get free ice cream, or to go through the line twice. Of course, with zero revenue, Ben & Jerry’s would find it hard to build more stores.

No doubt Ben and Jerry generate enough good will and probably attract a few new customers with their willingness to give up one day of revenue per year. And they’ll make more than enough money on the other 364 days of the year to cover their losses today. But what works for ice cream one day a year is an epic failure when it comes to roads. As long as the price is zero, there will be more demand than you can handle, and you’ll be struggling to pay for the capacity that (you think) is needed.

This article originally appeared on CityObservatory.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    With Trains Like Schwebebahn, No Wonder Germans Love Public Transit

    Infrastructure like this makes it clear why Germany continues to produce enthusiasm for public transit, generation after generation.

  2. Equity

    The FBI's Forgotten War on Black-Owned Bookstores

    At the height of the Black Power movement, the Bureau focused on the unlikeliest of public enemies: black independent booksellers.

  3. Transportation

    You Can’t Design Bike-Friendly Cities Without Considering Race and Class

    Bike equity is a powerful tool for reducing inequality. Too often, cycling infrastructure is tailored only to wealthy white cyclists.

  4. Children and adults sit on and around a deck with multi-colored chairs and giant LEGOs.
    POV

    If You Build It, They Might Not Come: Animating City Spaces

    Why do revamped areas remain barren after so much thought and money are put into redesigning them? A case study in Charlotte, North Carolina, offers clues.

  5. Life

    The Town Where Retirees Can’t Retire

    In fast-aging pockets of rural America, older residents are going back to work. But not always because they need the money.