Why We Don’t Need Bigger Roads, Just More Engaged Drivers

A Friend Snaps a Photo of Our Reflections in the Window as We Wait for an Elevator on the Campus of Purdue University, 12/1/2010

A friend of mine snaps a photo of our reflections in the window as we wait for an elevator on the campus of Purdue University, 12/1/2010

I was once in a course on economic thinking, and the class was posed the following question:

“Workers in a high-rise office building are complaining about having to wait too long for elevators. The level of discontent seems to be rising. What might be done? Some suggestions are offered. These include:

  1. add more elevators;
  2. increase the size of the elevators;
  3. speed up the elevators;
  4. stagger the working hours of different groups in the building;
  5. make some of the elevators go non-stop to the higher floors, while others cover the lower floors stopping at each floor as needed; or,
  6. use a differential charge for using the elevator, with higher price at peak-use times.”

After being given time to argue the merits of these possible solutions and put forth alternative options, we were surprised to learn the often implemented real-world solution: leaving the elevators themselves the same, and simply putting mirrors in elevator lobbies. Even though we had all waited in elevator lobbies that were walled with mirrors (they were all over campus), this idea had not occurred to any of us because we were attacking an entirely different problem than the one mirrors address.

We don’t always need to move more quickly. If we experience each moment as meaningful, then the pace of our actions becomes insignificant and the idea of “waiting” vanishes altogether.

The first three solutions try to fix the problem through brute force, attempting to increase elevator capacity or capability in a single stroke. The next three start to get a little more creative, attempting to cut down on demand or increase the efficiency of the elevator set-up, but they still approach the problem as one of insufficient elevator space to meet the demands of all the workers wanting to use them. Continue reading

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