The Olympics, traffic in Central London and a bar in Santa Fe

By Paul Ormerod

We all know now about the empty roads and deserted shops, all quite contrary to the official announcements before the Games began.  No doubt Transport for London used their massively complicated, expensive models of the transport network to deduce that the system would be under massive strain.

But a deceptively simple game devised in the 1990s about a bar in Santa Fe sheds light on what has happened.  Santa Fe is teeming with high powered researchers, who proliferate in the state of New Mexico.

Of a Thursday evening, many of them enjoyed gathering in the El Farol bar.  The problem was, there were lots of them, and the bar was rather small.  If it got too crowded, each scientist would have preferred to stay at home.  But if it was too empty, it was no fun.

Brian Arthur is a highly original British economist who has been based for many years in America.   He realised that the decision of whether to go to the bar or not could be set out as a problem in game theory.  Easy to describe: you need to have a strategy which maximises your chances of being there when El Farol is like Baby Bear’s porridge, not too full, not too empty, but just right.

It turns out that it is incredibly difficult to work out what such a strategy might be.  Swiss scientists Damien Challet and Yi-Cheng Zhang developed the problem into the so-called ‘minority game’.  Literally thousands of high powered maths papers have been written on this.  But no strictly rational way of playing the game has been devised.

But these endeavours have not been useless.  We do know some things about the game.  One thing we know is that if everyone determines the same strategy, regardless of what it is, it is guaranteed to fail.  If you think the bar will be empty, you will go.  But so will everyone else.  And vice versa if you think it will be full.

The effect of all the TfL publicity and Mayoral announcements was to get lots of players – the shoppers, workers and tourists who go into Central London – playing the same strategy.  In other words, they believed it would be heaving, and decided not to go in.

This was certainly reinforced by social network effects.  Decisions were not taken in isolation, but after discussions with work colleagues, friends and neighbours.  This made it even more likely that people would arrive at the same decision.

The lesson for policy makers is that in a networked world, less can be more.  A bit of smart theory can weigh far more than tons and tons of the massive models beloved of bureaucrats the world over.


4 Responses to “The Olympics, traffic in Central London and a bar in Santa Fe”

  1. Michael Hallsworth says:


    Sure, but there’s another game being played here. TfL have a single priority during the Olympics: to transport people quickly and safely, and limit delays. If they do this because there are far fewer people using the system, then no problem – from their perspective.

    Of course, if you have wider goals (like keeping the streets busy to support the local economy), then having fewer people about is a problem. But TfL have pursued exactly the right strategy to achieve their goals.

    So, the real issue is not with models or predictions, but with the incentives of the actors not being aligned…

    • gregfisher says:

      Hi Michael,

      do you know if TfL deliberately pursued this strategy of clearing the roads in order to transport people quickly and safely? It’s an interesting hypothesis & it would be interesting to know if it were true.

      Best wishes,


  2. Ian Middleton says:

    I think it was ineptitude and lack of finesse on the part of TfL, borne on the simple premise that the opinions of visitors to the Olympics would be the most important judgement that would be laid at their doorstep come the final day.

    The concerns of a captive audience of London dwellers, workers and businesses were of a lower priority, given that we’re all supposed to be supportive of the Olympics in bigging up Britain and reaping the benefits we were all promised.

    The trade-off was presumably that the normal traffic flow would be replaced by that of hordes of tourists eager to throw cash at London businesses. Trouble is, they put them off too.

    TfL and LOCOG entered into this Faustian pact on behalf of those businesses without consultation or consent. So what if a bit of overkill turned London streets into a wasteland for 2 weeks or more? As long as the eyes of the world weren’t greeted with banner headlines of traffic chaos.

    Frankly I just don’t think TfL, LOCOG or government gave a toss what the impact would be on London, just as long as things went smoothly during the games. As Michael says above, that was after all their remit.

  3. Kevin H says:

    Brian Arthur is Irish and from Belfast. The practical problem he used to frame the issue was the unpredictable attendance at the EL Farol bar on Thursday nights when an Irish band played.

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