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Flattening the Curve in the City

Diluting demand has been an effective strategy during the pandemic to prevent infrastructure from meltdown. The same tactic could now be used to reduce peak demand for roadways, transit and other systems.

by Carlo Ratti
30 September 2020
6 min read
by Carlo Ratti
30 September 2020
6 min read

In a well-known scene from the first film in the Fantozzi series (centered on the eponymous Italian literary and film character, created in the early 1970s and played by the writer and actor Paolo Villaggio), the narrator solemnly recounted what happened when the lead woke up and began his frantic race against time to get to work: “To make sure he could stamp his timecard at 8:30 a.m. exactly, 16 years ago Fantozzi used to set his alarm to 6:15. Today, by dint of continuous experiments and refinements, he managed to set it to 7:51… that is, at the limit of what is humanly possible!” In a memorable sequence, after going out to the street through his window, Fantozzi rushed into an oppressive urban landscape, dodging kicks and punches until he managed to jump onto a bus overflowing with people. Cities are inhabited by thousands of Fantozzis, all driven by the urgency to stamp their timecard at the same moment.

Aside from poetic license, the scene reminds us, between traffic and overcrowding, of the unpleasant conditions faced by commuters and other workers every morning. But there is another way to improve this situation. We could put into practice what we have learned in the last few months of the pandemic—the strategy of flattening the curve.

A valid strategy beyond the pandemic

The mantra of flattening the curve was based on the insight that cases of Covid-19 infection can be better managed if they are spread out over time. Social distancing and the use of masks cannot stop the virus, but they can help slow its spread, avoiding the overload of hospitals and shortages of mechanical ventilators or beds. 

Something similar happens in other contexts. When demand exceeds the maximum capacity of a system, any given infrastructure (hospitals, highways or power grids) becomes congested and approaches meltdown. By diluting the demand for healthcare, the strategy of flattening the curve has saved many lives. That same strategy could be used by our cities to make them better places to live. 

Although things have improved somewhat compared to the extreme synchronization of urban life in Fantozzi’s time, city infrastructures continue to suffer due to peak demand problems. Nine o'clock commuters clog the streets, causing traffic jams and accidents, and the same happens at lunchtime or in the evening on their way home. 

Some might now suggest that we simply upgrade the road network. In fact, this would not solve the problem, but would result in oversized and expensive infrastructure, assets destined to be underused most of the time. To improve the efficiency of our cities, we can take a better course of action by diluting peak demand. 

The flexible working arrangements we have discovered over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic present us with a unique opportunity to reschedule our agendas wisely and avoid overloading city infrastructures. In the last few months, many of us have begun to travel in a staggered manner, going to the office on alternate days and at alternate times. As well as reducing the risk of infection, this means that traffic flows can be spread out more evenly. Hopefully, after the end of the pandemic, each of us can continue to enjoy this flexibility. Let’s imagine what might happen if one colleague in our working group started the day via Zoom, not arriving at the office until noon, while another, already at their desk at 9 a.m., left for home in the early afternoon and continued work remotely. If such options were in general use, Fantozzi’s rush hour would be no more.

The “Minimum fleet” project presented in 2008 by MIT, CNR and Cornell University researchers developed software to reduce cars and taxis. An algorithm would allow car use in New York to be reduced by half compared to today. (The photo shows a project study)

A model to reduce peaks in traffic

Of course, flexibility per se does not guarantee the balanced use of urban infrastructure. Government authorities should provide incentives to reduce peak usage. In that regard, digital platforms could play a major role. In Singapore, for example, motorists are obliged to pay a fee when they drive on particularly busy roads. This model, known as Electronic Road Pricing (ERP), has resulted in substantial reductions in peak demand over the past two decades. ERP is a system whereby traffic can be controlled, and jams and accidents can be reported in real time. For example, if a crash slows down road A, or traffic causes too high a level of air pollution on road B, ERP increases the cost of access to those specific roads. This results in a twofold advantage. On the one hand, traffic is reduced. On the other, it promotes the usage of public transport, which can in turn be funded by road tolls. It is of course also crucial to focus on the potential risks. Digital platforms and incentive systems should genuinely protect the common good and not leave the streets to the better off and their cars. We must not forget that many workers, especially those in precarious employment, cannot afford the flexibility to reschedule their lives, nor do they have the financial means to pay expensive tolls. Just as the flattening of the Covid-19 curve must be accompanied by financial support for low-income people who are unable to work and study remotely, the flattening of the urban infrastructure curve must prioritize issues of social equality. For example, incentives could be created, based on criteria such as profession, socio-economic status or any disabilities. The increases in municipal revenue could be used to support public transport. 

Even if there were a way to perfectly reschedule urban infrastructure usage, a certain degree of flexibility would still have to be maintained to deal with unexpected spikes in demand. Unforeseen events—such as natural or environmental disasters—require us to take immediate, synchronized action. It is also important to remember that there are situations where synchronization is desirable. Taking to the streets together to celebrate our country's victory at the World Cup cannot be diluted to a period of 12 or 24 hours. Even so, the scenes of the accountant Fantozzi and his torments as he wakes up are not necessarily inevitable. It is up to all of us to decide how we want to manage our cities. In the first few months of 2020, we discovered how beneficial it could be to flatten the curve as an agonizing response to the public health crisis. We hope that this strategy will soon enable us to improve many other areas of our life in the city.

The author: Carlo Ratti

An architect and engineer, he teaches at MIT in Boston, where he directs the Senseable City Laboratory. He is also the founding partner of the CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati international design and innovation firm. He is currently co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization.