Wednesday 5 August 2009


Last Sunday I boarded a train in my hometown of Rotterdam. Shortly after the train had left the station, it passed through a commercial estate filled with large shopping malls and do-it-yourself centers. This early on a Sunday morning the shops would not be open and indeed looked deserted. The windows in the flat-roofed rectangular buildings were dark, and the huge parking lots were devoid of cars. The overcast sky and steady drizzle that blurred the view only added to the general feel of desolation.

As the train passed the next lifeless complex, I was suddenly struck by the sad spectacle those empty parking lots in particular were presenting. The neatly laid out rows of parking places seemed to cry out: "We are here, all smartly presented and available for your convenience! Where are you?", as if they did not know why they had been abandoned now, when only yesterday on busy Saturday, they had been fought over and none of them had been left unoccupied for more than a few moments. Little did they know that custom and routine were the main causes of the unbalanced use of their capacity.

Then I realized that this imbalance is the cause of similar woe among other providers of capacity: office buildings are deserted after business hours, classrooms stand empty during summer breaks, tables are left unoccupied in closed restaurants, and trains idle in sidings during off-peak hours.

Obviously the demand for capacity changes throughout the course of the day. Our numbers, however, don't. At any given moment on a day there's about as many of us as on any other moment of the same day. The trains aren't twice as full during rush hour as around noon because for some mysterious reason thirty percent of the population only exists during those early hours. Queues at supermarket checkouts don't occur mainly on Saturday afternoons because that's when some parallel world where another thirty percent of the population reside is close enough to ours to allow some of its residents to cross over.

Nope, we're all here. The problem is that we like to do the same thing at the same time with as many other people as possible. Why? Because we are bogged down in custom and routine. Custom says we work five days a week, from nine to five, so that's what most of us do. Of course, this causes logistical nightmares around nine and again around five. Routine says we do our shopping on Saturday, because that's when we have our day off. Cue clogged shopping streets and long checkout queues.

This propensity to invade shopping malls en masse during off days has led to a strange phenomenon here in the Netherlands called a "shopping mall traffic jam". This is a traffic jam that occurs on a stretch of road which is normally not very busy during weekends, but happens to lead to a shopping mall where a disproportionate amount of people have decided to recreate because the weather is too bad to go to the beach.

Obviously, if we could somehow spread the demand for capacity more evenly over the course of a day, we would make much better use of that capacity. However, it's hard to get people to make a radical change to their routine, so we probably can't change too much about their activities and the amount of time they spend on them. So how could it be done?

One solution could be to divide the population into seven equal parts. We'll call these parts dies, which is Latin for day. We then assign one of the seven days of the week to each dies as their first working day. In this way we could reduce traffic during peak hours by almost 29%, and reduce shopping mall stress by a whopping 85%.

This solution has some serious drawbacks, though. If your football team happens to have players from several different dies of the population, it may become rather hard to get the team together to play a game. And if you want to go out carousing with the boys, then statistically more than two thirds of the company will not be drinking anything stronger than root beer and will be going home at eleven because they have to go to work the next day.

Another solution could be to shift around hours instead of days. In this solution one hora - to keep with the theme - of the population start their day for instance two hours earlier than the next hora, and so on. The advantage this has over the dies solution is that a working day is still a working day for all horas, and a weekend day a weekend day. Traffic is spread evenly over the entire day, and rush hour would all but disappear.

One of the drawbacks of this solution is a biological one: it has been proven that humans who consistently spend much of their waking time during the night are more prone to suffering mental health problems. And as with the dies solution, people in different horas may find it hard to work together when there are only one or two hours in the day when all involved are present at the same time.

Teamwork problems are common to both systems. It would therefore seem that the best thing to do would be to keep to your own dies or hora. But what if a Romeo from one hora falls in love with a Juliet from the hora most distant from it? Theirs would be an impossible love, consummated only during the brief moments that their horas touch.

On the bright side we could have inter-dies championships. Furthermore, the hora system promotes cooperation, because services need to be managed and provided around the clock, requiring some sort of partnership between people from different horas.

On the whole, the dies and hora systems face serious challenges, and seem impractical. But if the chances of a real life adoption are remote, then the chances are much better that there will be some imaginative writer who will write a novel about the subject. Such a novel might look at how a population would adapt to the enforcement of one or even both of these systems. And who could be more perfect to tackle this subject than a novelist, who after all doesn't have nine to five working days and prefers to do his shopping on Tuesday mornings?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

As the owner of my life I only commit to what my being asks from me and not anymore what society expect me to do. It is sometimes hard to stay attached to my own needs and to find a way to fulfill them, while others tell you to act differently. In my opinion it all starts with responsibility. But as stated, it is almost impossible to make people aware that they don't have to act like everybody else. It is so save, so comfortable and so easy... No easyness in my life. That what costs effort and is hard to accomplish fulfills me the most!

9 August 2009 at 23:05  

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