Traffic Congestion: 10 Paths to Global Relief

Aug 26, 2016

Traffic congestion at rush hour

You get ready for the day, hop in your car and off you go onto the expressway, highway, freeway, street and…crawl. Stop. HONK! You get an overwhelming urge to weep, scream and/or jump out and start pummeling the cars around you (and if you do, who could blame you?), because today, as with every day, you’ve encountered traffic congestion.

Those two seemingly harmless words are no laughing matter. Traffic congestion has a grueling effect not just on your vehicle, but the environment and your physical and emotional well-being. Studies have shown that 60% of the world’s population will end up living in cities by 2030 and experts predict this will make cars more essential and gridlock more prevalent.

If our cities are only getting bigger – mega cities are already blowing up around the world – we need to embrace their size. Progress is inevitable, so how do we innovate road travel? And what is the role of government in this?

Innovating through technology and forward thinking

From mobile apps tracking and sharing real-time travel information to actual vehicles created to make life and your commute easier, several unique and thought-provoking solutions are being created to deal with traffic congestion today. Public officials and private companies are working both separately and together to prepare for the influx of larger populations and expanding transportation needs. It’s research that is necessary to ensure the best possible outcome for our global infrastructure.

Here are 10 ways private and public organizations are innovating to loosen up our gridlocked future.

1. Incorporate adaptive signal control technology

You’re in a left-hand turn lane that has its own turn signal, but you end up sitting through three cycles before you can move. Or you’re at an intersection waiting for the light to change for what seems forever and when it finally does, only four or five cars can get through before it turns red again. How did that happen?

In some smaller areas, intersections have sensors under the road that detect when a car pulls up. This signals the need for a light change. Larger cities may work on timers that are based on peak hours, not actual flow. While traffic patterns have changed over the years, these devices haven’t kept up, which has led to that red light/green light disparity.

Welcome to adaptive signal control technology (ASCT), the solution to poorly-timed traffic lights. This innovation adjusts the green, yellow, red light flow to actual driving conditions. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is fast at work to move it from test to implementation throughout the United States. This will bring about a radical and effective change in the fight against traffic congestion on a grand scale.

2. Promoting “smart” public and private partnerships

One of President Obama’s last acts in office was the 2015 allocation of $160 million to research and develop “smart cities.” Part of that is to reduce traffic congestion throughout the country and includes a collaboration between public officials, scientific minds and private companies. That money has been allocated across several programs meant to encourage effective incorporation of IT solutions to support better living conditions. These funds also help cities get in front of the inevitable population explosion that will create issues for their infrastructure.

3. Publicly challenging the norm

Getting an entire country to embrace such concepts as designated bus lanes, multimodal solutions, self-driving first/last mile shuttles and car-free zones is a monumental task. Both FHWA and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) know this and are working hard to move the U.S. to a better system before it’s too late.

FHWA has created several reports that highlight the effects of and suggested solutions to congestion. These are great resources for understanding the issue and how lawmakers can address the problem more effectively.

DOT recently took a more novel approach to encouraging and implementing traffic control. It created the Beyond Traffic Smart City Challenge. The contest encouraged cities to pitch ideas on how they would streamline and automate their local infrastructure to make travel easier, cleaner and more efficient. The prize was an up to $40 million pledge and was awarded to Columbus, Ohio in July 2016.

4. Engaging connected cars to battle traffic congestion

Automobiles are already being outfitted with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication technology. These connected cars will “speak” to each other as well as transfer information to and from various parts of a city’s transportation system for a smoother, safer drive.

With V2V, automobiles will be able to know just how far they are from another car and adjust automatically, without the driver’s having to do a thing. V2I could help synch traffic lights to create better flow and get roads to “tell” a vehicle when there’s danger up ahead (ice, potholes, etc.). The potential is huge and has automakers chomping at the bit to get legislation that will allow them to add this to all of their fleets. However, these technologies aren’t just something the car industry is pushing. Lawmakers all over the world are seeing the potential for a more sustainable, safer and well-traveled future with these systems in place.

The NHTSA submitted a report in June 2016 that outlines the need and makes suggestions for V2V, specifically, to be installed in all automobiles. While the focus is on highway safety, the benefits also include clearing up traffic congestion and emissions.

DOT is awarding various grants to cities willing to test pilot projects that incorporate both V2V and V2I technologies. Tampa, Florida was awarded $17 million from the department to create a smartphone app that would deliver traffic flow information. Upwards of $25 million has been granted to both New York City and the state of Wyoming to test V2I communication with some of their public vehicles.

Cars’ “talking” to each other and the road already exists in some models. However, broader expansion is on hold as government and the auto industry await legislation that will do two things:

  1. Support implementing more robust V2V and V2I technologies in general.
  2. Establish a relationship with the FCC to be included in its radio frequency requirements for more expansive and effective “car talk.”

5. Manage and promote carpools

High-occupancy Vehicle Lanes (HOV), also known as carpool or diamond lanes, exist all over the world and are nothing new. The first one was implemented in the United States in 1969 on the Henry G. Shirley Memorial Highway in Northern Virginia in the stretch of road between Washington, D.C. and the Capital Beltway. It started as a bus-only lane and began including cars that carried four or more passengers in 1973.

Since that time, HOVs have been incorporated all over the country as a way to address gridlock. However, they’ve been managed with varying success. Actual carpooling is at an all-time low and it’s the goal of transportation departments around the world to encourage its expansion to combat traffic congestion and emission control.

Here are three things being done in the U.S. and abroad to accomplish this:

  • Rideshare incentive programs: From Southern California’s IE511.org to Oregon’s “Drive Less. Save More.” program, states around the nation are offering employers and employees incentives for carpooling, bike-sharing and even telecommuting to keep automobile use down.
  • Ride-hailing offering more true ride-sharing: Uber and Lyft are doing more to encourage genuine ride-sharing with their apps. They do this by offering lower rates to those who split their trip with 1 or more passengers.
  • Carpool app and option expansion: Smartphone applications and options for ridesharing are growing and becoming even more specific. For example, BlaBlaCar (blablacar.com) matches commuters in Europe, South America and Mexico. Carma Car (gocarma.com) is available in both the U.S. and abroad, and CarpooltoSchool is working with U.S. schools to overcome limited transportation problems and budget cuts to ensure successful student attendance.

All of these solutions are created either through initiatives supported by government, nonprofits or private enterprises to promote communal driving.

Changing the face of transport

Perhaps the biggest traffic congestion solution being promoted all over the world is a more efficient, accessible general system of transportation. Whether it’s grabbing a gondola in Venice, a ferry to take you across the Hudson in New York, sharing a bike in Paris or jumping onto the inexpensive, incredibly clean and uncrowded train in Seoul (considered one of the best in the world), dumping your car and going by alternative transport is becoming more prevalent in many cities. Taking these different modes of travel, however, isn’t always easy and the challenges are being addressed by both private companies and public officials.

6. One system to rule a multimodal world

various public transportation options to alleviate traffic conestion

A bus and streetcar wait at an intersection, showing multimodal potential

Multimodal is the ability to connect various types of public transport for easier access. This way of travel may be the best way to relieve traffic congestion if it can ever become more universal.

Like electronic toll collection (ETC), there is really no centralized pay system that gains you access to all of the different modes of municipal travel. For the most part, your bus pass won’t get you on the train or the subway or pay for the taxi or ride-hailing/sharing service to get you to and from the station. However, that is changing as countries around the world not only seek to promote less personal vehicle usage, but implement solutions. Japan, for example, offers both the prepaid Suica and Pasmo cards that allow limited multimodal travel and UK commuters can chose either the Oyster pass or Travelcard.

Other ideas in the works include involving cab and ride-hailing services for that First/Last Mile transfer as well as providing shuttles and upgrading the public transport experience to make it more appealing.

7. Renovating municipal travel

One of the issues surrounding public transport in many cities isn’t that commuters don’t want to take the bus, train, or trolley. It’s a variety of factors that include sharing the road with everyone else at peak hours, dirty vehicles, inconvenient schedules, stations located in unsafe areas, an inability to get to and from the transit stop to their ultimate destination and more. Lawmakers and private companies are hearing the complaints and while billions of dollars are being poured into a variety of programs to alleviate these issues, ridership is stalled in many cities.

Providing designated lanes for both bikes and buses has been proposed as a way to make these modes of travel more convenient and is seen as a better alternative. Implementing areas to shower, change, rest, eat and more are also being considered. It’s the goal to get people to take advantage of a system that already exists and that can curb gridlock and reduce air pollution. Thought leaders around the world are thinking up new ways to address this constantly, even in those cities that already top the “best of public transport” lists like New York, London, Paris and Seoul.

8. Crowdsourcing for real-time traffic updates

In the past, you could get traffic updates on the television or radio news during rush or peak hours. While this definitely was more helpful than taking off for your morning or afternoon drive without any information, it didn’t really prepare you for what might happen in real time, any time.

Enter crowdsourcing of traffic updates. This is all about the community’s sharing road conditions as it experiences them and wireless recognition through connected cars, digital infrastructure and more. The information is then loaded into a database made instantly available with just a touch of your finger on a smartphone screen.

Such apps as INRIX and WAZE are making driving smarter for motorists through this sharing. The data collected don’t just go out to motorists, but are also being communicated to transportation departments and media around the world. They provide updates on road conditions so issues can be fixed faster. Driver behavior is also delivered in an effort to rework the infrastructure to better support actual motorist reaction on the highway.

9. Unique traffic management

Some local governments have taken thought-provoking approaches to fixing traffic congestion in their areas. While they’ve been hit or miss, they are innovative and open the door to broader thinking. Here are three examples:

  • Driving by License Plate Numbers: In cities like Dubai and Bogota, the times and days certain cars are allowed to be on the road are based on the last few numbers of their license plates. Whether it’s odd day–ex. the 15th of the month and your license plate ends in 583–or a randomizing of the last few numbers on your tag that switches up annually, they are pushing toward fewer cars on the road and levying hefty fines on those who don’t follow the rules.
  • High-Priced Road to Purchase: Singapore charges hefty fees for car ownership in its quest to lower emissions and congestion. If you want to buy a vehicle, you have to first obtain a Certificate of Entitlement (COE). Purchasing is done via a bidding process that recently went as high as $57,000 local currency (more than $42,000 USD). This isn’t the cost to buy the car. It’s the cost to buy the permission to buy the car. It is a 10-year certificate that allows you to deregister the vehicle when it expires or to renew for another 10 years with another bid at that current rate.
  • Travel by Air: Several cities have begun to incorporate sky gondolas as a way of transporting their citizens through difficult-to-access areas and alleviate gridlock. Implementation has come at the hand of local officials in each of these areas and include the commuter cable cars of Metrocable in Medellin, Colombia, Mi Teleflorico in La Paz, Bolivia, and the Emirates airlines in London.

10. No cars allowed… PERIOD

car free zones are a thing of the past, present and future

Venice, Italy, one of the oldest car free zones in the world

Many cities have begun opting for car-free zones to battle traffic issues as well as pollution and noise. This is either implemented during certain times of the day or permanently. While this is nothing new – Venice, Italy has never allowed cars – it is something that is definitely spreading beyond quaint towns with narrow streets to urban centers choked with traffic. This is a municipal decision that local governments are enforcing and many citizens are embracing.

Pioneering transportation techniques is the key

vehicles traveling in the future

A futuristic view of transportation

Everyone – commuters, government, private companies, think tanks – is acutely aware of the issues facing our streets on a global scale. Transportation bills are addressing traffic congestion, even if they are not specifically calling them out. Getting lawmakers to move forward on auto legislation that markedly transforms everything from connected cars to eGovernment takes time, however, and ending that gridlock is vital to alleviating what we’re experiencing on the highway.

Technology and innovative thinking are believed to be the keys to beating the traffic problems the world is facing and will continue to battle as we grow. As thought leaders, legislators and private citizens consider our transportation future, investigating solutions that range from the simple to the sublime are creating a more streamlined, ecologically- and physically-friendly way to expand our cities.


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