Starbucks Messes With Traffic Models


Another attempt to predict a complex system -- foiled by Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts:

In addition to its effect on mileage, the boom in on-the-go breakfasts has confounded attempts to forecast travel patterns, which are based on computer models that rely heavily on the predictability of the morning commute. Those models assume that people take the shortest, fastest routes to work, not the ones that necessarily lead past a doughnut shop.

"How do we predict future travel when commercial and social interactions like this can surprise us?" McGuckin asked.


I used to work for a large gasoline retailer whose #1 marketing goal was to "Win With Dirt" - find the highest traffic locations.

I can see where this can cause problems at individual intersections and traffic points but I don't see that its a problem in a larger context. The dual Starbuks example from the article sounds like businesses are comming to terms with that.

So it sounds like this isn't nearly the problem that its made out to be. It does seem to be a backdoor into the sprawl-is-evil debate, and the obvious answer to the question of "How do we predict future travel when commercial and social interactions like this can surprise us?" always seems to be "with draconian land-use and zoning laws, taking private property without public purpose, and building expensive new mass transit systems that almost no one will use".

The 'problems' that come from individual consumers making choices can always be solved by giving smart technocrats lots of clever ways to restrict or take consumer choice away.

I agree that the language is generally taken from the sprawl crowd; the bigger point for me was the level of unpredictability of trends in commerce.


I recongize the bottleneck that can be caused by a lot of cars stopping in the middle of their trips. But topping at Starbucks on-the-way does not increase the number of car trips or trip miles (except in the parking lot). Hence, I was thinking that stopping at a Starbucks on-the-way would lessen, or at least redistribute, the traffic burden, by:

1) Spreading the same number of cars and car-trips over a greater time period. Some people leave earlier, others get to work later.

2) Keeping a car off the road (and in a parking lot) for 5 or 10 minutes, permitting other cars to flow more smoothly.


Also, I'm just waiting for Wal-Mart to start putting up drive through gourmet coffee windows on the sides of all their stores...

As you pointed out the impact of the additional car milleage and congestion is minimal, or even positive (from shifting trips out of the most congested periods).

So is this story really about unpredicable commerce patterns, or is it about how vexing it is to urban planners when people don't do what they're 'supposed' to?

BTW, I know people who would never have left for work a half hour earlier to shave 10 minutes off their commuting time, but who have gladly done so to save 5 minutes of wait-time in line at Starbucks! I'm convinced that people don't mind their commutes nearly as much as they say they do - for many people it is practically they only time they get to themselves during the day. A topic for another day ...

In the Post article, Mr. Kirby (of the MWCOG) says that people's desire for coffee is only 'a problem' from his point of view if it encourages them to drive alone rather than take mass transit or carpool. "If [drinking coffee] becomes a big deal, it just makes it a little hard to get people onto transit," he says.

Because, of course, actually allowing people to drink coffee on trains and buses is entirely out of the question: that's only what people appear to want, after all.

Metro's financial structure is such that more riders are only a good thing if they come at no cost at all to Metro; adding more cars, cleaning up coffee spills, building a line to Dulles, etc. would all increase ridership but are all losing ideas because every passenger they carry already costs them money. When you are selling dollars for $0.75, the last thing you want to do is stimulate demand.

Here's an idea: allow coffee-drinking on the trains, but forbid bringing coffee into the stations. Then set up Starbucks stands in the stations that sell drinks with a $0.10 surcharge that goes into a carpet-cleaning fund. If they managed things properly -- say with special anti-spill lids and so forth -- they might actually come out ahead on the deal.


Solo already makes excellent -- though not spill-proof -- plastic lids for this purpose, I especially like this one, the Traveler Plus, that lets you close the lid.

Besides, isn't breaking even -- and heaven forbid, coming out ahead -- against Metro's ethos?

This guys can't predict traffic patterns properly and they were going to "plan" the whole damn economy?


Powered by Movable Type 5.02

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Kevin published on April 18, 2005 10:55 AM.

Foreign Affairs on Broadband was the previous entry in this blog.

Bono Yet to End Poverty, Still Wears Sunglasses Indoors is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.