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Math (Ugh, I know. . . )


A Japanese bus shelter shaped like an orange.  As optimal as you get.
By JAMES KENNEDY


I was reading a repost of Greater Greater Washington's coverage of bus-rapid-transit (BRT) in Montgomery County, Maryland, and was struck by the following passage :

"Last November, planner proposed a 92-mile system where buses had their own lanes, whether in the median or in repurposed car lanes, on all or part of each of the 10 routes.  But some residents and the Montgomery County Department of Transportation resisted calls to take away street space from cars." (emphasis mine)

Why would drivers feel this way?  I think it's because they don't understand math.  We're not exactly the math-iest country in the world, so this is understandable.  Let's highlight something called a Pareto Optimal to see if we can break through that problem.

A Pareto Optimal occurs when you have a trading situation.  You might have oranges, and I have apples.  If we both like those, we could trade so that we each have some of both.  

Or perhaps you might not like your oranges at all.   No problem, I do.  You can take all of my apples in exchange for your oranges.  

What's "optimal" about the situation is just that we've traded so that no one can do better without someone doing worse.  Paretos optimals are complex.  If misappropriated, they can be used to justify inequality in society, even though the concept itself offers nothing to bolster an unequal distribution of wealth (the Pareto Optimal(s) are really a range of numbers in most cases, rather than one magic number).  Nonetheless, a person should understand how Pareto Optimals work as a basis for other economic concepts.  Roads are applied economics 101.

As I mentioned, if you don't like oranges, it doesn't benefit you much to refuse to trade with me, because I can give you apples instead.  Your oranges are not worthless, but they're worth very little to you.  In the case of traffic, drivers may not recognize that a second car lane is like an unwanted orange, but it really is.  Drivers benefit from trading that space so that a more efficient carrier can use it.  A bus can carry sixty people, in two car lengths' space.  By giving dedicated space to that bus, you benefit the bus riders and give them a heads up.  But by making the bus attractive, you also benefit the remaining cars.  There's nothing you could do to widen a road that would create as much space for cars as creating a bus lane that's not traversable by drivers.

The million dollar question is, how do we get people to see this?




2 comments:

  1. Yonkel! That orange is a tomato! :P

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  2. Correction: The publishers of Transport Providence acknowledge a grave error in misstating the type of fruit depicted by the Japanese public transportation system's bus shelters. The aforementioned fruit is a tomato--or to-mah-to if you prefer--rather than an orange--or arrr-ange if you prefer.

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