The Road Less Traveled

I’ve read that given two stores people will tend to visit the one that is toward the city center in preference to the one that’s in the other direction.  It’s as if you had to climb uphill to move away from the city center.  Customers tend to flow, like water toward the commercial centers.

These effects get filled under the term Hoteling in some of the economics’s literature.  In it’s most naive form Hoteling is kind of stupid; it merely points out that buyers include the total cost of a transaction when making a purchase.  The vegetables maybe spectacular at Russo’s or dirt cheap at Haymarket; both a half hour round trip from my house; but the Foodmaster  at the bottom of my street is a damn sight more convenient.  Which goes to explain why there are a few dozen Foodmaster’s around town; like a hotel chain Mr. Foodmaster knows that part of what he’s selling is being close at hand.

My reading on hyperbolic discounting suggests that hoteling effects are much stronger than mere arithmetic would suggest.  I suspect that people have extremely skewed models about this stuff.  The hills are much steeper than it’s possible to imagine.  That most people shop closer to home and stick to the main roads far more than would be in their best interest.

I’ve always been a road less traveled kind of guy.  As a child, before first grade, I can recall lying in bed tracing out the roads of my town; wondering what was down particular turns my parents had never taken.  As an adult I have a self amused tendency to take turns out of raw curiosity and a strong preference for taking the roads the super highways replaced.  I know that the interesting authentic vendors tend to be hidden, around the corner, up the stairs, where their unique qualities sustain them; rather than their proximity to traffic.

Hoteling effects, of course, take place in your mind too.  When something new needs an explanation you fall naturally into the existing explanations.  When you must decide what to do your thoughts flow into existing channels.  It would be, it is, exhausting not to.

In this country, where we have traditionally had tremendous amounts of empty real estate, we have undergone waves of upheaval that have transformed the shape of the traffic flows.  We have successively overlaid networks of rivers, turnpikes, canals, railroads, and superhighways.  For better or worse, each time these have created new commercial centers while displacing older ones.

In each round some people got really rich.  Not by buying the land cheap and selling it high, but by shaping the traffic flows until they came to the land they owned.    Some railroad barons are and were more conscious of this process than others.  For example the folks building Facebook are clearly working hard to see that social traffic flows over their turnpikes.

As a guy who like to take the road less traveled I’m pleased to see that Google Maps has added little handles to their suggested routes that enable me to dynamically drag them.  Now I can insist that, yes I do want to drive thru downtown on this trip; and yes I do want to make detour that goes along the beach road, and yes I do want to cross the river on that exceptionally narrow bridge.  But I wonder, why did they decide that such a feature would actually be interesting to most people?  Most people aren’t like me.  I suspect I’m way out on the long tail of map users; but then I suspect the folks working on Google maps are too.

3 thoughts on “The Road Less Traveled

  1. James

    Perhaps it’s because people will have local knowledge that gives better routing than their algorithm? It also allows for opportunistic stops – “Oh, I’ll be going past Fred’s house, I may as well stop in, but how do I continue from there to my destination?”

  2. abq-sunset

    I think it was the lawyers. If there’s a detour, now you can follow it. The more the user is in control, the less Google is responsible. It’s always the lawyers.

  3. Shane Curcuru

    Yes, those little handles are wonderful. Depending on your screen or mouse, they’re a little twitchy, but pretty darn good.

    I like the various routing features now added as well – drive / public transport / walking. It will be interesting to see how long it takes them to *usefully* integrate live traffic data into the routing and time estimate reports. Usefully being the key word – both automatic for the user, as well as actually reflecting true traffic conditions.

    Or, they could add Air as a route, and include a cost comparison based on some of the charges for gas vs. airfare. Oooh, that’s worth a blog post!

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