On Tollbooths

On Toll Booths

Growing up I was fortunate enough to attend Dulwich College, an independent high school in South East London. Dulwich was founded by Sir Edward Alleyn, an Elizabethan actor regarded as the finest of his generation and, as another data point, played by Ben Affleck in the movie “Shakespeare in Love”. In addition to its illustrious founder, Dulwich is known for the Picture Gallery with its extraordinary collection of old masters, including a small portrait by Rembrandt which has the dubious honour of being the most frequently stolen artwork in the world, and for several famous alumni. Of these, Ernest Shackleton is the school’s most distinguished son. Several times a day for at least four years I walked past a rowing boat, displayed  in the school’s grand foyer, on my way to and from class, dimly aware that it was somehow meaningful but idiotically never bothering to find out how exactly. Only many years later when it became part of an international exhibition celebrating Lord Shackleton’s heroic feats did I realize that the modest boat was the James Caird, a 23 foot whaler, in which the explorer and five of his companions made the epic voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia during the Antarctic winter of 1916.

Toll Gate, College Road London SE21

Toll Gate, College Road London SE21

In such august company a tollgate might merit scant attention. And yet, right there on College Road, stands something that felt like an anachronism even when I was a kid, the very last remaining tollgate in London. Set up in 1789, a full hundred years or so before the school occupied its current spot, it has been in near continuous service ever since. It even has its own rather quaint cottage (now itself a listed building) for the toll-keeper.  Fortunately for the teachers and students, the road itself is not especially busy, mostly because the toll is kept quite high, currently the equivalent of about $1.60.

In the USA, construction of the first major toll road, the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike, began just three years after the Dulwich tollgate opened. There are now some 5,000 miles of toll roads in the USA across 30 states, and the collection of the toll is an everyday inconvenience for millions of commuters.

Tolls can add hours to a commuter’s weekly journeys, and with the delays come the attendant problems of noise and exhaust pollution. In a 2011 report on congestion in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, toll plazas were estimated to be responsible for 40% of the area’s total traffic congestion. This translated into 180 million vehicle hours of delay,  140 million gallons of fuel wasted, and $4.36B congestion costs, all annually (from Hofstra Horizons Research: Traffic Jams, Delays and Mitigation Strategies (2011)).

But what may come as a most unpleasant surprise is that toll plazas are not only time wasting, polluting nuisances, they are also dangerous places. In fact they are more dangerous than any other part of highway driving.

This became frighteningly clear in 2003 when a tractor-trailer ploughed into the back of a bus that was coming to a stop at a tollbooth near Hampshire, IL, causing a 5 vehicle pile up and claiming 8 lives. Subsequently, the NTSB undertook a safety review of tolls and found that they were responsible for 49% of all interstate accidents in Illinois and that these toll accidents were three times as deadly as other road accidents. Illinois was not alone. Toll plaza accidents accounted for 38% of all highway accidents on New Jersey toll roads and 30% in Pennsylvania.

These statistics take some getting used to if you’ve had it drilled into you that Speed Kills. Now, I’m not trying to justify the times that I may or may not have inadvertently exceeded the speed limit, nor am I trying to make a case for others to do so. But we have evidently made the assumption that being-in-motion is dangerous and being-at-rest is safe and that therefore toll plazas should be the safest parts of highway driving. We have stringent design standards in place for safety belts and airbags, but toll plazas have been constructed for 50 years without national design standards. What is becoming clear is this; not only do crashes cause blockages and stoppages, but blockages and stoppages cause crashes. The flow of traffic is comparatively safe compared to interrupting and stopping that flow.

Fortunately, thanks to a number of technological advances, the Stop, Wait and Pay tollbooth model is being superseded by Open Road Tolling (ORT). In the ORT model, cars are identified individually as they drive past (or under) detection points at their normal speed and the car owners are billed accordingly. This can be achieved in various ways and with differing levels of accuracy, completeness and timeliness. Currently the most effective method for everyone concerned includes a transponder in the car which communicates with an antenna at the detection point (which by default are built on the site of the former toll booths/plazas). The driver pre-purchases the transponder and an initial monetary balance. Each time the antenna detects the transponder it debits the toll from the balance.

According to KPMG’ s Toll Benchmarking Study 2015, toll systems employing the transponder cost the operator between 17c - 34c per transaction (i.e. per car) while cash systems (the ones that bring motorists to a stop) cost between 72c and $1. While it is true that not all transponder systems allow full ORT, the general picture is clear. Systems that maintain driver flow cost the toll operator/collector between one third and one quarter as much as Stop-Wait-Pay.

The bottom line is this: ORT, a model in which drivers maintain their flow, is much safer for those drivers and their passengers than the alternative in which they have to come to a standstill and wait in line to be processed or served. It is also a much more efficient use of their time as well as their gas, and is thus a far better experience. It’s also a better solution for the toll operator, being cheaper to manage and to maintain than toll booths. And because it eliminates stopping and waiting it also increases fuel efficiency and reduces carbon monoxide and other emissions, providing an environmental benefit as well.

There is a broader lesson to be learned here. The traditional toll booth is by no means the only example of making a customer stop and wait to be served. In fact many of our everyday experiences are designed in the same way. Checkout lines at grocery stores and other retail outlets, waiting rooms at doctor’s offices, checking-in lines at hotels, telephone-based queues for “the next available agent”, check-in and security and boarding at airports (three queues in a row!), all work in the exact same way as tolls.

This model is clearly easier for the provider of the service to implement. It’s easy to make patients wait for the doctor, it’s easy to make customers wait to pay for their groceries. But when we choose that path of least resistance and design experiences because they’re easier for the provider, we almost inevitably make them worse for the customer. We take them out of their flow and stop them in their tracks, we make them wait, we show that we don’t really respect them or their time, and we make it abundantly care that what we really do care about is their money. And there are sometimes other unintended consequences like endangering the customer in ways small or big, harming the environment, as well as providing poor work conditions and experiences for our own employees. And to cap it all, making it easy for the provider does not necessarily equate to making it cost effective for them.

When we choose instead to design experiences to make life easier for the customer, to take stopping and waiting out of the equation and to put flow back in, we are nearly always forced into finding ways that make it better for everyone, including the provider.

The provider may have to improve other parts of its operations in order to make it possible to design for the customer first, but when it does, it makes things better in just about every respect for just about everyone. Open Road Tolling is better in just about every respect than its predecessor, and the same is or will be true for all other experiences that are designed to keep the customer in their flow, pursuing activities that are meaningful to them and worth spending their time on.

Organizations that have designed experiences and solutions following the flow model are typically among the most differentiated and the most successful players in their industry or market. And yet they represent a very small part of the whole. As a result there is a massive opportunity for transformation, including everything from how we eliminate waiting time in doctor’s offices and supermarkets to how we get rid of the silos that stop the flow of ideas, information and knowledge across and beyond the organization, from how we utilize flow based energy sources like the sun, wind and water, to how we support soccer Moms, business travelers and high-school students alike in their respective flows. Any organization that is looking for transformative and differentiated success should consider designing and implementing flow-based solutions and join the resourceful revolution. Although even I hardly expect the Dulwich tollbooth operators to tear down one small part of history that may actually be serving its current constituents, my fellow Pueri Alleyniensis - the boys of Dulwich College - rather well.