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Beware the Tragedy of the Commons: Holiday Travel Headaches Await Motorists

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Driving advocacy organization AAA projects that 39.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more away from home this Memorial Day weekend, the traditional kickoff of the summer travel season in the United States. That is one million more motorists than last year, creating the potential for the highest Memorial Day travel volume since 2005.

It only seems like all of those vehicles will drive through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

Choking traffic in this region is a major concern of civic leaders, urban planners, environmentalists and daily commuters. Tim Komarek, assistant professor of economics in the Strome College of Business, said the average time Hampton Roads commuters spend delayed in traffic has been increasing.

"The average Hampton Roads commuter currently spends upwards of 45 hours a year delayed in traffic," Komarek said. Despite recently levelling off, "the average commuting time has increased by about 1 1/2 minutes over the last decade and a half," he added.

Local travel times increase dramatically during the summer vacation season, when motorists from across the country visit attractions such as the Virginia Beach Oceanfront and Colonial Williamsburg.

Bryan Porter, associate dean of the Graduate School and a professor of psychology, is an expert in the field of driving behavior, publishing studies on seat belt use, running red lights and aggressive driving behaviors.

Porter said there is not an abundance of research on the psychological toll that traffic jams exert on motorists.

"It does take a toll on our health," Porter said. "But the research tends to focus on the systems that are in place - road infrastructure, traffic pattern innovations, rules of the road - while forgetting that human beings have to interact with those systems."

Porter said the biggest defense mechanism motorists have against traffic jams is that they are predictable in certain locations at certain times.

"If I expect traffic, maybe I can handle it better," he said. "But aggressive driving behavior, causing more incidents, can cause traffic delays in unexpected locations, leading to more stress for motorists."

And improving road infrastructure isn't always the answer to reducing traffic congestion. In the University's 2016 State of the Region report, Komarek noted that infrastructure projects such as the widening of Interstate 64 between Newport News and Williamsburg is likely to offer only short-term relief to motorists, because of a concept known as induced demand.

"This idea basically suggests that if a new roadway is constructed, and actually makes travel less expensive by reducing driver and passenger travel times and gasoline usage, then this will cause some individuals to switch their travel patterns and begin to use this new, improved path more often and therefore increase the number of miles they travel because driving has become less expensive," Komarek said.

Porter said there is a theory from biological sciences that can govern this behavior, known as the tragedy of the commons.

Popularized by biologist Garrett Hardin in 1968, the theory suggests that if a public space is free and accessible, it will result in overuse. More and more citizens will meet their individual needs, but ultimately hurt the common good.

In a 2004 conceptual chapter of the book, "Traffic and Transport Psychology," Porter and co-author Thomas Berry argued that the same process is occurring on roads and highways, to the nation's detriment.

"Exasperating the problem are general expectations that the commons can be saved quickly, typically by building better roads," the article notes.

Instead, Porter and his co-author argue in favor of "small wins," breaking the societal behavior into small, resolvable issues. In Hampton Roads, changing an aggressive driving culture that wrecks the commons can start with actions like select employers shifting workers away from rush hour commuting, Porter said.

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