Solving for traffic, the world’s annoying antagonist


Feb 21, 2024

As an Angeleno, traffic has been an antagonist in my life since I can remember. Driving home from college was a nightmare, whether I took the newly-expanded 405 freeway or braved the equally bumper-to-bumper-congested Sunset Drive. What should have been a half hour drive often turned out to be an hour and a half. But traffic congestion, sadly, isn’t a problem unique to Los Angeles. 

Last year, traffic haunted me in Boston, New York, Kampala, Lagos, Zagreb…which makes me wonder: is traffic congestion a global problem and is there a universal solution that could be developed?

Our Jobs to Be Done Theory has an opinion on that

Traffic congestion is due to a variety of issues like saturation, lack of infrastructure, and inadequate public transport. Traffic congestion also causes a variety of other issues—in addition to annoying massive delays, there are monetary losses, fuel wastage, air pollution, and health risks to consider. And yet despite all these issues surrounding traffic congestion, people still hire congested roads every day.  

Jobs Theory says that “Jobs” are the specific circumstances in people’s lives that cause them to hire, or pull in, products or services to make progress. Essentially, products and services are hired as solutions to solve problems. 

In the example of traffic, congested roads are being hired to get to work, to get home, to move from point A to point B. Therefore, congested roads aren’t the problem, they’re the solutions. 

The problem is basic mobility 

If we think about traffic congestion as a solution rather than a problem, we may be able to develop better solutions, or at the very least, come to terms with the ones we’re employing. This applies to us at an individual level and at a wider societal level. 

What I mean is that we, (yes, I too), often blame policymakers for their inability to do anything about traffic congestion. If roads are public infrastructure and traffic is society’s problem, then it’s up to our government to fix traffic, right? 

Maybe. But the government isn’t successfully fixing traffic. Adding four lanes to the 405 freeway in 2011 only made it slower today. And although there are a variety of other proposed solutions for Los Angeles, such as congestion pricing, this won’t be a universal solution for Angelenos, much less for those in other cities around the world also experiencing congestion. 

Jobs theory also says that understanding the Job helps us focus on the problems we’re trying to solve. And although I had a mobility problem in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Kampala, Lagos, and Zagreb, the solution I would’ve liked to hire would’ve been different in every single city, because of the different circumstances surrounding my problem.

For example, when I fly into LAX and I’m not lucky enough to book a very late or early arrival, I would happily hire a train to avoid peak traffic hour road jams. But, if instead I’m thinking about that time I missed my connecting Flixbus in Zagreb because I didn’t want to pay for the more expensive train route option, I would have, instead, been incredibly grateful for a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane so that my bus could get to its station on time. 

Circumstance matters 

In cities all around the world, we seem to experience the same mobility problem and we seem to hire the same solution: congested roads. But depending on our individual circumstances and the circumstances of the cities we find ourselves in, the solutions we hire should look different. 

Congestion pricing won’t work for everyone in Los Angeles because of wealth disparities. And although widening our way out of traffic didn’t work here at home, that isn’t to say building more roads won’t work in Kampala. Alternatives to congested roads include high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, building more roads in growing areas, installing ramp metering, clustering high density housing around transit stops, and even encouraging employers to give stipends to employees who use public transport. These alternative solutions should be hired based on the circumstances surrounding our Jobs. 

So as individuals, as policymakers, as employers, and as a society, the questions we should be asking ourselves are: why am I hiring a congested road today, and what’s the alternative I’d rather employ? 

Sandy Sanchez is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on understanding and solving global development issues through the lens of Jobs to Be Done and innovation theories. Her current work addresses how individuals can use market-creating innovations to create sustainable prosperity in growth economies.