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Dutch road, railway and aviation systems: peak capacity investment or better utilization?

10 Dec 2018
When it comes to railway, road, and aviation, The Netherlands provides capacity to cover peak demand. An expensive endeavor. These systems are only fully utilized for small amounts of time – road and rail during rush hour, airports during holidays. Yet outside those hours, these systems are significantly underutilized. Since peak demand fully determines investments in all three networks, idle capacity comes at marginal cost – because it requires little extra investment. Currently, offers to use this idle capacity lack the appeal to shift demand in off-peak times. Why is this the case, and how do we change it?

Breaking self-imposed patterns

The problem is, we're stuck in certain patterns and mindsets. Not individually, but as a society. We are extremely focused on peak moments in our jobs and spare time. What we tend to forget is that it has been our choice to organize things this way. For example, when we go on a vacation, we always leave on Fridays or Saturdays – a pattern that we jointly conceived. Likewise, working days typically run between eight or nine in the morning until five or six in the afternoon. This creates demand in an accumulative manner.

So, can we change it? Is it possible to create offers so appealing that they may lead to a more balanced utilization of our national mobility systems? At M3 Consultancy, we believe so. But it requires appealing propositions that encourage employers, employees, students, and travelers to opt for alternative time schedules.

Towards attractive offers

Concrete initiatives for moving demand off peak are gaining some momentum. For example, major employers offer their employees rail and bike mobility packages rather than lease cars. Moreover, by splitting peak and hyper peak, the Dutch Railways create a starting point for differentiating and smoothening peak demand.

However, the path we follow is gradual – we are not rethinking the way in which resources, assets, and facilities can be used differently by major mobility-demanding groups such as education, commuting employees, and road and rail transportation. These accumulative flows all demand the same scarce-network capacity, at the same place and at the same time.

The perspective of low-cost alternative offers could be more powerful than charging a premium for peak-hour usage. Today, the consumer already pays a high price in terms of wasted time and price premiums. There seems to be a need for more creativity in designing viable alternatives.

But how to break a habit? While families have breakfast together, can we get students to have their morning meal together in a campus-like way at the university’s premises? At work, can we organize more teams in early (7 a.m. – 3 p.m.) and late (10 a.m. – 6 p.m.) time windows while maintaining a valuable overlap (10 a.m. – 3 p.m.)? Is there a way to fund the opportunity cost of moving road transportation off peak?

The outcome of these lines of thought appears to be attractive – they simultaneously save time and cost, reduce CO2 emissions, and lower our mobility systems’ unit costs. We already have a pie to share. The only challenge is how to design each piece and present it to the right audience in the right way.

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