The Man Who Could Unsnarl Manhattan Traffic

Wired Magazine | May 24, 2010

By Felix Salmon

The walk to Charles Komanoff’s favorite lunch spot, a patisserie two blocks from his office in Manhattan’s Financial District, usually takes a couple of minutes. But on this December afternoon, Komanoff has spotted a truck from the grocery-delivery service FreshDirect. His eyes widen and his steps quicken as he approaches the orange and green refrigerated vehicle. Within seconds, he’s peppering the driver—politely but insistently—with questions. What route did you take to get here? How many deliveries do you make per trip? How often do you double-park? Do you leave the engine running?

Komanoff assures the driver that he is not a corporate spy. He’s a traffic expert who has taken up the Borgesian task of re-creating, in precise detail, the economic and environmental impact of every single car, bus, truck, taxi, train, subway, bicycle, and pedestrian moving around New York City. And to do that he needs data. Lots of data. Which is why even the shortest walk can turn into an hours-long fact-finding mission.

When he finally gets back to his office, Komanoff will use this interview to inform his magnum opus, the Balanced Transportation Analyzer (.xls), an enormous Excel spreadsheet that he’s been building for the past three years. Over the course of about 50 worksheets, the BTA breaks down every aspect of New York City transportation—subway revenues, traffic jams, noise pollution—in an attempt to discover which mix of tolls and surcharges would create the greatest benefit for the largest number of people.

Komanoff’s spreadsheet, which he has posted online, calculates how new fees and changes to existing tolls affect traffic at different times of day. It calculates which costs are borne by city dwellers and which by suburbanites. It calculates how long it takes passengers to dig for change and board buses. And it allows any user to adjust dozens of different variables—from taxi surcharges to truck tolls—and measure their impact. The result is a kind of statistical SimCity, an opportunity to play God (or at least Robert Moses) and devise the perfect traffic policy.
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Komanoff is a dyed-in-the-wool stats geek, and the BTA demonstrates his faith in data. By measuring the problem—the amount of time and money lost in traffic every year—we can begin to solve it, he says. We can turn the knobs on the entire transportation system to maximize efficiency. Komanoff’s model suggests a world in which everything from subway fares to bridge tolls can be precisely tuned throughout the day, allowing city planners to steer traffic flow as quickly and smoothly as a taxi driver tooling his cab down Broadway on a quiet Sunday morning.

It’s hard for Komanoff—a fit, if slightly unkempt, 62-year-old—to conceal his pride in this spreadsheet. “It’s a mansion with 50 rooms, and each one relates to all the others,” says Komanoff, who shares his Tribeca apartment with his wife, two kids, and a Steinway piano. “Maybe this is how Mozart felt when he was scoring Don Giovanni.”

Komanoff’s masterpiece has impressed municipal traffic planners from New York to Paris to Guangzhou, China. “Charlie has created the first believable model of the impact of pricing on transportation choices,” says Sam Schwartz, a former New York City traffic commissioner who actually coined the word gridlock.

It’s also the most ambitious effort yet to impose mathematical rigor and predictability on an inherently chaotic phenomenon. Despite decades of attempts to curb delays—adding lanes to highways, synchronizing traffic lights—planners haven’t had much success at unsnarling gridlock. A study by the Texas Transportation Institute found that in 2007, metropolitan-area drivers in the US spent an average of 36 hours stuck in traffic—up from 14 hours in 1982.

But the BTA, Komanoff says, will finally allow engineers to model the effects of proposed transportation policies in realistic detail. He translates all traffic impacts—delays, collisions, injuries, air pollution—into dollars and cents; that way, it’s easy for users to compare the benefits and costs of different plans. He has even come up with a plan of his own that would, according to his calculations, collect $1.3 billion in motorist tolls per year—all of which would be spent on improving public transit—and save $2.5 billion in time costs by reducing delays. To that, add $190 million from decreased mortality as a result of making streets more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, $83 million in collision damage reduction, and $34 million in lower CO2 emissions.

But there’s one aspect of Komanoff’s plan that his spreadsheet can’t help with: how to put it into practice. Americans hate the idea of paying to drive on public roads. No US city has succeeded at passing any plan remotely like Komanoff’s. And the response from New York City’s Department of Transportation has been tepid at best. Komanoff may have created a vision of the traffic system of the future, but he’s still stuck with the government and politics of the present.