Did the London Tube strike improve social welfare?

Due to status quo bias, maybe so:

New analysis of the London tube strike in February 2014 finds that it enabled a sizeable fraction of commuters to find better routes to work, and actually produced a net economic benefit.

Analysis of the London tube in February 2014 has found that despite the inconvenience to tens of thousands of people, the strike actually produced a net economic benefit, due to the number of people who found more efficient ways to get to work.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford, examined 20 days’ worth of anonymised Oyster card data, containing more than 200 million data points, in order to see how individual tube journeys changed during the strike. Since this particular strike only resulted in a partial closure of the tube network and not all were affected by the strike, a direct comparison was possible. The data enabled the researchers to see whether people chose to go back to their normal commute once the strike was over, or if they found a more efficient route and decided to switch.

The researchers found that of the regular commuters affected by the strike, either because certain stations were closed or because travel times were considerably different, a significant fraction – about one in 20 – decided to stick with their new route once the strike was over.

The original paper, by Rauch, Larcom, and Williams, is here, and for the pointer I thank Samir Varma.


I've wondered if various car and personal navigation systems have resulted in an increase in efficiency by showing people better ways to get where they are going. I suspect is it lunacy for the government where I am to keep building new roads prior to requiring or subsidising car navigation systems. (If they gave me a discount on my car registration I'd get one right away, as cheap ones are only $99. Or maybe $150 now the Australian dollar has fallen.)

Generally they come altogether free with Smartphones... Look at Here if you want offline Navigation, otherwise Google Maps.

Unfortunately we pay through the nose in Australia, not for smartphones, but for data. But my friend does have a holder for his smartphone in the car so he can use it as a navigation system. But actually touching a smartphone with one's hands while driving is terribly naughty in this country,

I don't believe using the Google Maps app for navigation really uses much data, but I guess that is relative. Also, you can typically just set the destination and then attach to your dashboard while still parked. You don't really need to put your hands on it after that unless you decide to change your destination.

I think one of the problems is that we need car navigation systems that respond in real time to changing road conditions. And that sounds like it could be a public good that could benefit us all, so it might be worth taking some of the fuel excise money that in currently going into new roads and putting it there, if no one is going to do it for free.

I'm pretty sure Google Maps does that already. It was one of the reasons they bought Waze, too.

It's not perfect, but it's an improvement over having no traffic information.

Yes, Google Maps already does this and does it very well. I use it routinely, even on trips in the local metro area that I know well, because of it's real-time traffic mapping. I can't begin to recount the number of times it's re-routed me around massive backups after an accident on the highway ahead of me.

Years ago I would have been helplessly stuck wondering if it made sense to get off and try to go around. Now I know well in advance where traffic is backed up, several alternates, and how much time they will cost/save all updated in real-time. I even used it extensively in Europe this summer and while there were some backups (approaching and entering Paris, for example) with no good way around, at least I had forewarning of exactly where the backups were and how much time it would take to get through them (Google Maps puts a little time tag next to any red [backed up] stretch to let you know how long it's adding to the usual travel time).

It's truly amazing and I'm more than happy to trade some personal data to Google for this otherwise free service. And while it's not perfect, I almost never take any significant trip without it and wonder how I ever got around before it existed. And just for the record, I have no connection to Google whatsoever, purely a very satisfied user.

Glad to hear it works well, Brian. So I'm wondering why don't I know about this? If there are car navigation systems that are updated in real time and can significantly reduce congestion why hasn't anyone made any effort to get me to use it to save on transport infrastructure costs? Maybe we're a bit behind the times here, or maybe it's just me.

The one thing I think government could do that would improve travel efficiency is to focus on constructing more alternate routes for major arteries. That way if the major artery is backed up for whatever reason people can easily swtch to another route.

Where I live there are lots of points where there is only feasible route in some places so it creates bottlenecks. Or you have to drive WAY out of your way to get around the bottleneck. I don't think the local government has caught onto this though. One the one side are a bunch of people grinding the mass transit axe, and on the other side are a bunch of developers who just want to stick more self-contained sub-divisions off of the same major arteries. They don't want alternate routes going through their developments because suburban residents don't want traffic to go through their area.
(Everyone seemingly prefers to jam all the traffic down one road).

... added: The preference seems to be to widen and expand existing arteries into four-lane interstate behemoths over building up and extending local back roads to provide alternatives.

Isn't this to be expected? Local back roads often come with eminent domain issues with many smaller owners versus expanding interstates where the land is already theirs or owns in large plots by fewer owners.

What's the point of collective bargaining if the labor force is just going to strike so frequently anyways? I thought that was the point of it in the first place, to avoid constant disruptions by strikes.

"What’s the point of collective bargaining": to hasten the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and bring Capitalism to its knees. Or just to pillage captive customers.

They are just defending their own private interests, but of course only capitalists should be allowed to that, not workers ;)

Capitalists are much more intelligent about it, in that they actually provide some sort of added value in exchange.
Carrot vs. stick approach.

In a well ordered polity, capitalists are not allowed monopolies, not allowed to use violence and coercion, not treated as above the law, etc etc.

They are not private interests, I paid for those trains, not them.

Is "social welfare" a coherent or meaningful concept? How would one measure this?

results like this make me wonder (perhaps unjustifiably) if i could improve social welfare by slapping researchers about the head every once in a while.

With a social welfare function: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_welfare_function

The data driven finding is certainly interesting. But the obligatory economic theorizing/modelling is, to put it politely, balls. Websites tell you the most efficient journey - you can even enter your preferences in there whether you prefer fewer changes, quicker journeys, no buses, just tube, etc. But it is true it does not tell you other things - like how hot that line is, or how busy it is.

It would be interesting to see if there's a gender bias in this data. In my experience, men will argue for ages about the best way to get from A to B; whereas women will just take the familiar route and never consider an alternative.

Such studies are only allowed if they show that women are superior in some way.


Not true in my experience. I have better navigational skills than most men I have met.
I pretty much always know which direction is North and can usually find my way from point A to point B without even a map, just by knowing the rough direction of A to B on a NSEW axis.
I was able to find my way home from four miles away when I was 10.

And I'm an American man who weighs less than 140 pounds. I guess that means American men are generally really skinny?

Uber offers free rides when taxi driver make a strike to protest for Uber's service. Uber has shown that taxi driver's strike is peak app download day and new clients stay. So, if the Tube strike made people look for alternatives and stay with the alternatives, the Tube result is comparable.

However, strikes are not the only disruptions. Metro stations or lines can be closed for extended periods for maintenance & upgrading that are part of "normal" times. So, if there are already normal disruptions that improve welfare (more efficient routes), the strike-as-good-thing narrative lose some appeal.

On a funny note - a few years ago there was a public transport strike in Prague (somehow such strikes are extremely unfrequent over here). Prague is not very bicycle-friendly, it's quite hilly and there are not many good bike-roads in the center.
Anyway, everybody expected that on the strike day there will huge congestions.... and so everybody either arranged work to stay at home or used a bicycle. It was probably the calmest day in Prague ever. The only traffic jams were on bike-roads....
Conclusion? Public transport causes traffic jams. No public transport - no traffic jams ;)

Same thing happens in San Francisco when BART (subway system) goes on strike. Everyone suddenly realizes that they can work from home and traffic becomes quite manageable.

Now if only that lesson would stick and everyone would work from home more often...but then what are the middle managers going to do all day?

How long before the change from the prior routine becomes the status quo? Maybe the 5% who switched are the ones showing status quo bias.

Reminds me of a point I was making last week about how recessions prompt consumers to search for more optimal/efficient products. I.e. switching from cable to Netflix/Hulu during the 2008 recession. One could say that economic disruption jolts people out of status quo bias and forces them to do a new search. So you end up with the economy operating more efficiently after the recession.

Hah! I was wondering if I was alone in this.

During the 2013 BART (subway) strike in San Francisco, I finally bothered looking up the bus routes, and found one that had a stop ~2 blocks from my place and ~2 blocks from the office. I continued to use it after the strike, replacing my previous BART commute that included a mile of walking.

I know, I "should" have looked it up all along, but go fig.

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