Take the long way home. It seems that commutes to and from city centres would be better if a few drivers took the scenic route.

Most drivers in urban areas try to find the fastest possible route to their destination. But when everyone does this, congestion increases and everyone suffers. If a handful of people took longer routes, they could cut overall congestion by 30 per cent, says Serdar Çolak of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

“When a road is crowded, an additional car makes a very big difference,” he says. “If we are able to remove a couple of cars from the morning commute, that’s going to save everyone else a lot of time.”

Çolak and his colleague Marta González looked at millions of anonymous location-tagged mobile-phone records and matched them to roads in Boston, the San Francisco Bay area, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and Lisbon and Porto in Portugal. They noted that when drivers choose the shortest routes for themselves, commute times can lengthen by 60 per cent. Apps that suggest the shortest routes in real time makes the problem even worse.

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But if a few cars take side roads, congestion reduces, saving each driver up to 3 minutes on average. In the future, computers and smart cars could figure out the best way to send everyone, the authors add. Apps that suggest other routes could offer drivers incentives such as a free cup of coffee for sacrificing their time.

But not everyone is convinced this is the best solution. “Placing restrictions on roads could have counter-effects that are difficult to forecast,” says Marc Barthelemy of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France. “Real success would be that individuals leave their car at home and choose public transportation.”

Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms10793

This article will appear in print under the headline “Taking a detour improves traffic for everyone”

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