Neither a Sidezoomer nor a Lineupper Be—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86
The following commentary was published in The New York Times on August 11, 2008.
Neither a Sidezoomer nor a Lineupper Be
By Ian Ayres ’86
Cynthia Gorney has a great piece in The Times Magazine about the ethical dilemma we all face when the left lane of a multi lane highway is blocked and drivers need to merge to the right. Should you be considerate, move over early and queue up (and feel like a sucker as other drivers whiz past) — or should you not move over and try to squeeze in at the last second (and feel a bit sleazy for passing others)?
Gorney refers to people who sleeze by as “sidezoomers” and to those who move over early as “lineuppers.” Levitt has written about this and definitely sides with the lineuppers (and even supports traffic fines to deter sidezooming).
Barry Nalebuff and I thought about this problem a few years back when we were writing Why Not? (shameless plug). Here’s a solution that we drafted but left on the cutting room floor:
Since neither approach is satisfactory, we should look for a better answer. By this point it should be second nature to see that the problem is one of poor incentives. People who jump the queue don’t care sufficiently about how jumping slows down the other drivers.
Is there a way to prevent people from engaging in this behavior? Indeed there is — quite literally. Why not neither move over nor pass, but simply track the speed of the slower moving right lane? You can block people from passing you without taking advantage of the people who are already moved over. The drivers in the right lane understand how you’ve helped them and always gratefully let you in at the end.
Try it, it works. We know; we’ve done it. The only people who lose are the ones who wanted to jump the queue — but they are usually too self conscientious about their intentions to honk (or pull out a gun).
Our solution of neither merging nor zooming doesn’t solve the problem of the fake exit sidezoom (because you are blocking legitimate exiters) or the surface road zidezoom (again because you are slowing down legit surface road drivers). But it does help in those closed system situations where a highway has a bottleneck without an exit.
It’s also a solution that doesn’t need a lot of collective action. Gorney’s article suggests a third way — but it is a tad too utopian for my tastes. I’ve done the “neither move over nor pass” option dozens of times and my unilateral action promotes both fairness and efficiency. As Barry and I drafted:
A particularly nice feature of this proposal is that individuals can implement it on their own. Thus, the new norm can propagate by example. Every time you do this, the other people in line learn about it and can put into practice themselves.
Of course, there might be a reason why we ultimately decided to cut this solution from the book.