London Interdisciplinary School ©2019

The Commuting Conundrum

As job creation is concentrating around cities, ever more people are being forced to commute. On an average day in london 500,000 people arrive between 7am-10am by train alone. At Liverpool street, the 8am peak sees a staggering 12 times more people than it’s 1pm low. This is an enormous challenge for train operators, as the vast majority of their customers only experience the service at its worst possible time. Worst still, these operators can’t simply add more trains at peak times due to congestion on the lines, limited numbers of platforms and issues around housing trains in low use periods.

Design a socioeconomically fair incentive scheme to encourage people to travel in non-peak times or via alternative routes.

01. Hanlon’s Razor

Humanity through time and space

“Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”Read more

It’s easy for the passengers to assume that the poor quality service is part of a conspiracy by the train operators to boost profits, where in fact it’s just harder to solve than people might think. Any solution you come up with will likely be seen through this lens.

02. Shifting Baseline Syndrome

Humanity Through Time and Space

In the absence of past information or experience with historical conditions, members of each new generation accept the situation in which they were raised as being normal. Meaning what people perceive as ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ changes from generation to generation. Read more

What people will consider to be overcrowding in a train station will generally increase from one generation to the next. However, access to highspeed wifi will also increase. Academic paper

03. Peak End Rule

Humanity through time and space

We judge an experience by its most intense point and its end, as opposed to the total sum or average of every moment of the experience Read more

Peaks aren’t just present in the groups of people, but also in their experience, such as when everyone exits the train on arrival, which also happens to be the end for people arriving. This gives a clear direction of where to focus on improving the experience.

04. Log-normal Distribution

Critical Analysis

A log-normal distribution is a continuous probability distribution of a random variable whose logarithm is normally distributed. It is the maximum entropy probability distribution for a random variate X for which the mean and variance of ln(X) are specified. Read more

Gaussian Distributions are used all too often when modelling behaviour, so much so they’re called ‘Normal Distributions’. In this case however, the peaks of arrivals are so extreme and skewed this isn’t a Normal case, so we need to look far beyond the standard modeling methods.

05. Human Centred Design

Creativity and Ideation

Human-centred design is an approach to interactive systems development that aims to make systems usable and useful by focusing on the users, their needs and requirements, and by applying human factors/ergonomics, usability knowledge, and techniques. Read more

Understanding the holistic user-journeys of the humans involved, outside of the train journey itself, putting the everything in context is crucial to coming up with an effective solution. What are they solving for? What they do before their journey? What their employer expectations are once they arrive? What can they have power change? What they want to change?

06. Rapid Prototyping

Creativity and Ideation

Rapid prototyping is a group of techniques used to quickly fabricate a scale model of a physical part or assembly using three-dimensional CAD data. Construction of the part or assembly is usually done using 3D printing or "additive layer manufacturing" technology. Read more

Although this method was born out of manufacturing, the Lean movement have adapted the techniques of rapid prototyping to enable you to quickly test, learn, repeat for hard to implement problems too. This is one such problem, as the problem involves hundreds of thousands of people and the solution will very likely be based on their collective behaviour, making small scale tests complex to implement. Read more

07. Occam’s Razor

Complex systems

“Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” In other words, we should avoid looking for excessively complex solutions to a problem and focus on what works, given the circumstances. Read more

There are often novel solutions to problems which are much simpler to implement e.g. rather than thinking about how to make a train journey shorter, could you instead make it more pleasurable or useful? Read more

08. Redundancy

Complex systems

In engineering, redundancy is the duplication of critical components or functions of a system with the intention of increasing reliability of the system, usually in the form of a backup or fail-safe. Read more

This definition is at odds with the common use cambridge dictionary definition of “unnecessary because it is more than is needed”. Leading to increased public pressure to remove built in margins of safety, increasing the frequency and severity of delays on trains. Read more

09. Opportunity Cost

Strategy and Judgement

Opportunity costs represent the benefits an individual, investor or business misses out on when choosing one alternative over another. While financial reports do not show opportunity cost, business owners can use it to make educated decisions when they have multiple options before them. Read more

This applies for the train company when weighing up which solution to choose, but also will be exactly the kind of decision which customers will be doing when looking at purchasing your solution vs coping with the peak travel.

10. Cost Benefit Analysis

Strategy and Judgement

A cost-benefit analysis is a process businesses use to analyze decisions. The business or analyst sums the benefits of a situation or action and then subtracts the costs associated with taking that action. Some consultants or analysts also build the model to put a dollar value on intangible items. Read more

This is the underlying formal, technical and rigorous process behind when thinking about Opportunity Cost (which the train operators will likely use, but passagers almost certainly won’t). This method is helpful for being able to compare tangible costs (such as ticket prices) to intangible costs (such as how busy it is). In this case there are alternative methods we might want to consider such as Net Present Value and Internal Rate of Return.

More real-world problems