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

    Why New York City Stopped Building Subways

    Nearly 80 years ago, a construction standstill derailed the subway’s progress, leading to its present crisis. This is the story, decade by decade.

  2. Shared bikes await their riders in Dallas.
    POV

    What Cities Need to Understand About Bikeshare Now

    Public or private? Docked or dockless? E-bike or e-scooter? It’s complicated. But bikesharing is now big business, and cities need to understand how these emerging systems operate—and who operates them.

  3. Transportation

    Taxing Uber and Lyft to Fund Transit Isn't Fair to Transit

    Roads improvements are part of the regular budgeting process. Why not transit?

  4. Mayor Ryshonda Harper Beechem at her desk in Pelahatchie, Mississippi.
    Life

    The Strange Case of a Black Mayor's 75% Pay Cut in Mississippi

    In Pelahatchie, a small Mississippi city, the town’s first black mayor struggles to exert control.

  5. Sikh devotees crowd outside a holy Sikh shrine.
    Design

    Can We All Get Along?

    Being a city dweller in an increasingly urbanized world will mean learning how to share space with very different people, says planner and urban scholar Richard Sennett.