Traffic congestion steals our time, reduces our quality of life, and hurts us economically. But what can we possibly do about it? Here's how technology and some common sense could put an end to traffic congestion.
A 2010 RAND study noted that traffic congestion comes from an imbalance in the supply of and demand for road space, but that "the prospects for building the way out of congestion are limited." What's more, few congestion-reduction strategies remain effective over time and many strategies provide only short-term relief. Still, there are a lot of things we can do now to ease traffic, while we're also making long-term plans for a less congested future.
Undoubtedly, human drivers are responsible for making traffic worse. Every time there's a slow driver, or a lane change, or any kind of erratic or unpredictable jockeying for position, it sets off a chain-reaction that's felt down the traffic line. But self-driving vehicles, because they will be consistent and predictable, will do much to reduce the individualized nature of driving.
"Self-driving vehicles will remove human error from the picture, along with disability and impairments." Toronto transportation management systems manager Rajeev Roy told io9. " By relying on computers and sensors we'll be able to increase the capacity of roads."
Indeed, traffic congestion is, by definition, an issue of scarcity; it happens when there simply isn't enough road to go around. Nonoptimal human driving habits account for much of this.
But as Roy points out, there are still some big questions surrounding its implementation, including issues of jurisdiction, liability, insurance claims, and the potential for it to put many people out of work (like cab and bus drivers).
"This is the future," Roy told io9, "I'm sure we'll tackle many of these problems."
Somewhat related to autonomous vehicles is the connected vehicle program.
"In a connected vehicle, you still have an operator inside, says Roy, "but the vehicle itself is very intelligent."
Here's how it works: Vehicles are "connected" to others in the program by communicating with sensors along the side of the road and to other vehicles. This way, each car knows how far it is from the vehicle ahead. What's more, the vehicle also communicates with the infrastructure itself via a link to the management center.
"If there's any incident, like an accident ahead, the system knows something's up ahead and that action is required," says Roy. "All vehicles will know if the car in front is braking, so that it can decelerate and maintain a safe distance to avoid a rear-end collision."
Roy says this solution will introduce a host of safety issues.
"Connected vehicles will increase the capacity of roads because each vehicle can drive considerably closer to the other and at high speeds — and without having to worry about crashes," he says, "The system is taking care of the communications between the vehicles."
What's more, the system would allow for faster incident management.
"We'll be collecting so much data that, in the case of an insurance claim or investigation, we'll know exactly what has happened," say Roy. "We'll actually be able to tap into the real time data for a claim."
He adds that the public transit infrastructure can also be integrated with the CVP. For example, at a push-button crosswalk, the system can communicate with all transit that there's a pedestrian on the road and that drivers need to be careful. It's a solution that will remove many of the uncertainties found in unsafe conditions. It may not alleviate these conditions altogether, but it will make driving smarter and safer.
Like self-driving vehicles, much still needs to happen before it becomes a reality. But it's being discussed and researched right now, including an exciting pilot project in Ann Arbor, Michigan that includes the transit component. For the pilot study, cars were equipped with a number of safety devices, including a basic safety message (BSM) that broadcasts a message ten times per second. The BSM alerts other nearby, similarly equipped vehicles to the presence of the broadcasting vehicle. (Images: US Department of Transportation)
Active Traffic Monitoring
Another way to manage congestion is by simply providing information to drivers. Highways in the Greater Toronto Area, for example, are equipped with sensors located about 500 meters apart.
"As you're traveling on the highway, we are monitoring your speed — not on an individual basis, just the speed of the traffic — in the morning or during any of the peak hours, and we know at which speeds the vehicles are traveling at different stretches," says Roy.
With this information, signs can inform drivers about estimated travel times to certain destinations en route. Roy says this information can comfort drivers (though I'm dubious, as it can also serve to frustrate).
Additionally, active traffic monitoring can be instructive. If a lane is not moving, for example, it can pre-warn drivers and get them to move over. It can also work to reduce secondary collisions as a result, which typically come in the form of rear-end collisions. (image: AARoads)
Intelligent Road Marking
More conceptually, there's also the potential for intelligent road marking systems. Russian firm Razmetkus recently designed an interactive system that works by displaying information for each driver individually, updating them about the traffic situation, providing helpful hints, and alerting them to potential hazards. But rather than having the roads themselves convey the information (a ridiculously expensive proposition), it would be more practical to have a HUD on the windshield that conveys the exact same information. Relatedly, there's also glow-in-the-dark roads to consider — something that's already in place along a 500 meter stretch of highway in the Netherlands.
GPS devices are getting better all the time. Some can tap into the local traffic reports and inform the driver of delays and road stoppages. In turn, the GPS can recommend an alternative route. This is a trend we can expect to continue; the next several generations of GPSs will feature even smarter features, including deeper integration with the autonomous capacities of vehicles, along with SIRI-like voice-activated agency. We'll eventually be able to have actual conversations with our GPS (or vehicle), working out the best route to a destination given the traffic conditions. (image: Lucky Business/shutterstock)
Traffic Signal Coordination
Many of you will be familiar with this one, particularly those of you who live in cities where two-way streets have been converted into one-way streets. San Francisco provides an excellent example, as does Hamilton, Ontario. In Toronto, this can be seen along Adelaide and Richmond.
As Roy explained to me, signal coordination works exceptionally well when traffic moves in a one-way direction. This allows the signal lights to be coordinated in such a way that drivers can expect a long chain of consecutive green lights. At the same time, when two-lane streets are converted to one-way, parallel streets are converted to be one-way in the opposite direction. This dramatically reduces stoppage time, and as a result, traffic congestion.
According to RAND, paired one-way street conversions can increase travel speed by about 20% and reduce travel time by 20% to 30%. (image: cozyta/shutterstock)
Also known as directional lanes, this is the practice of preferentially choosing the direction of lane flow according to the morning and evening peak hours. For example, by using overhead signal lights (like the red crosses and green arrows along Jarvis street in Toronto), the capacity of a road can be increased in one direction and reduced in the other depending on the time of day. Some cities, like Auckland, New Zealand, use concrete barriers to physically demarcate the reversible lanes. (image: Toronto Star)
Putting traffic signals on highway on-ramps is another solution that's been implemented in some regions.
"The idea here is that you don't want to disturb or impede the traffic on the highway," Roy told me. "What these signals are doing is allowing the vehicles to enter at a slow rate onto the highway. By delaying the drivers from the side streets, or behind the ramps, this allows the highway to move at a faster speed."
Restricted Lane Changes
This low-tech solution does a decent job of keeping the traffic flowing. By marking certain stretches of roads or highways with solid non-passing lines, drivers are prevented from making precarious lane changes — particularly along areas where side views are restricted, like long bends.
High-occupancy Vehicle Lanes
It's estimated that 76% of people drive to work alone, and that only 10% rideshare. For suburban commuters working in a city the lone driver figure is even worse, featuring rates as high as 82%.
Also called commuter lanes, they're restricted traffic lanes reserved for multiple-occupancy vehicles, sometimes at peak travel times. HOV lanes are normally created to increase average vehicle occupancy and person throughput with the goal of reducing traffic congestion.
HOV lanes has its critics, but there's also the potential for HOT lanes — high-occupancy toll lanes. According to RAND, HOT lanes can maintain free-flowing travel speeds (~60 to 65 mph or 95 to 105 kph) during peak travel hours while carrying up to twice the volume that congested general-purpose lanes do. They can also raise sufficient revenue to subsidize express-bus operations. (image: MTO)
Lastly, Roy reminded me of mass transit.
"Despite all these technological solutions, transit is still one of the best ways to alleviate traffic conditions, especially in cities with car-based societies," he told me. "If you've been to Europe, like London and Paris, you'll understand what I'm saying. Think about a bus which has a capacity of about 50 people. If the bus is full, you've taken about 49 cars off the street, replacing it with one bus."
Roy says we need to promote transit, along with work-live-and-play concepts — like living in the area where you work and even telecommuting.
"If you build an effective transit infrastructure, people are more likely to set aside their cars," he says.
Top image: testing/shutterstock
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