Traffic jams are drivers’ worst nightmare. And surprisingly, we have not yet found a solution to the problems they cause. You might have experienced rush hours in Los Angeles or San Francisco, but wait to see the situation in other countries, such as India or Brazil. Up until 2014, drivers in Sao Paolo, Brazil experienced traffic jams that regularly add up to nearly 200km.
So while we are waiting for President Trump to act upon his promise for investment in infrastructure, let’s see what our options are.
The Classic Ways Ways to Fight Traffic Congestion
Improving public transportation system is probably one of the first suggestions people mention when someone asks them “what can be done.” It is not an easy task. It requires significant monetary investment and construction, with little guarantee that the public will adopt the changes readily. But this is what Europe’s strategy has been throughout the past century.
One strategic approach would be to decrease the number of people who get behind the wheel to get to work. This is the primary reasons for rush hour traffic jams. So if there is motivation for people to leave their cars at home, there will be smoother traffic on the highways.
This is exactly one of the policies Sao Paolo established to fight traffic congestions. The city developed a program that invited companies to provide transport for their employees. In the first round of the experiment, 20 participating businesses drew in a total of more than 1,000 employees daily. By the end of the initiative, the number of employees driving to and from work decreased by 17 percent.
The US has increasingly been adopting this strategy too. The nation’s driving capital, Los Angeles, is making a multibillion-dollar investment in building or extending five rail lines. Transit advocates say that should be a model. They say that “if LA can do it, any region can.” So why not indeed?
We are constantly talking about smart cities and smart vehicles these days. Still, there’s not enough talk about smart travel. And yes, this could be related to new technologies and connected communication. The rapid penetration of smart vehicles in the US market is significantly helping the situation with traffic jams.
Yet, it could take decades for smart cars to have a constant improvement in road conditions. For this to work, there should be smart infrastructure, too. And we can’t all get so smart all of a sudden. It’s too expensive.
Another way is to think of efficiency and effectiveness of our travel plans and methods. The car-sharing trend has been right on the spot here. While older generations regarded car ownership as a symbol of freedom, today’s youngsters feel free when they don’t need to have a car.
A millennial today is 30% less likely to buy a car than someone from the previous generation. In addition to their increased environmental consciousness, Millennials are true fighters against traffic congestion.
The Modern Alternatives
Recently, the desire for innovation and impact looking for additional solutions. They have started looking at what has already been done but through a different perspective. In a way, they are adapting existing solutions from one market to another. All new researchers and innovators aim to combine public policy with a private sector innovation in order to fight traffic jams effectively.
Reinventing Toll Lanes
One such option is establishing high occupancy toll lanes. The idea is to convert carpool lanes, which are relatively low in occupancy, into lanes that solo drivers can pay to use. This will give additional lanes for cars, thus easing the congestions and making lanes more efficient.
Toll lanes are already in use in cities like Atlanta, Miami, and Houston. Drivers have shown concern about the emergence of more toll booths. Yet, more toll lanes will not necessarily require additional tollbooths.
In the near future we might stop paying in cash at all, so tollbooths would be of no use. Instead of cash, all vehicles will have a pre-established connection to the owners’ credit card so that transponders could identify them and automatically charge for passing. To keep drivers’ privacy in mind, they could have the option to connect only their license plate to the device and receive monthly bills for the fees.
Or should we keep calling them toll lanes at all? We want to fight traffic congestion, which inspires negative emotions in people, with something that brings even worse emotions. Toll lanes. When we say “toll,”,” everyone thinks of a tax, so the reaction is immediately negative. But what if we use a milder word, like “fare,” instead? Or even “fair”!
Either way, such a lane would use existing lanes but will introduce fares for the cars that drive on them. Fare lanes and charging devices will be most effective when there is a floating rate of fare per mile based on the traffic situation.
Real-time monitoring can help with traffic control – computers will have traffic information right at every moment and will be able to apply congestion pricing.
Congestion pricing occurs when there is an excess demand for a certain commodity or service. If people don’t find alternative ways to commute, they will be the main contributor to traffic congestions. Thus, if they want to keep the same behavior, they will be charged for it.
This happens not only on highways but also on railroads. Tickets for train rides on weekends in Europe are more expensive than those on weekdays, for example. Airlines and shipping companies also apply this strategy since they only have limited space at their disposal. The natural benefit that comes out of this is the revenue inflow. Different cases, however, show there are some unexpected benefits to congestion pricing, too.
The London Example
One city that has already benefited from congestion pricing is London. London’s citizens have already been experiencing such an idea in practice since the early 2000s. In the British capital, motorists pay £11.50 ($14.90) to enter the city center on a weekday. The policy has been in rule for more than 12 years already and has led to some significant benefits. Decrease in traffic and pollution, for sure.
Yet, there is a surprising one, too. A study by three economists at the University of Lancaster found traffic collisions have fallen 40 percent between 2000 and 2010. That drop in accidents is an unintended but a much welcome benefit of the program.
Overall, the program raises more than $300m a year for public transit, reducing accidents by 40%. Still, a flat fee has its shortcomings. The system only covers a part of London and fails to target vehicles traveling for longer and at the most congested times. This is why the city is considering the flexible fare rate.
London’s not the only city that has tried out congestion pricing: Singapore, Stockholm, and Milan all have similar plans in place. A similar plan was proposed in New York City in 2015, too.
Recently, scholars have started looking for alternative ways to improve traffic on highways. And we mean ways beyond technology or payment systems. They look for something simpler and even cheaper to implement. Something that involves only people themselves.
Berthold Horn, an MIT professor of Computer Science, for example, believes he found a way to improve traffic jams. According to his theory, traffic jams occur largely because of naturally occurring clumps of freeway traffic. They slow down driving and contribute to the increase in pollution. He believes, however, that they can be eliminated if people start looking at the distance between them and the car not only in front of them but also the one behind.
Horn uses mathematical equations to describe how what he calls bilateral control improves the flow of traffic. He states that people have a simple system in their heads to determine what distance they should keep when in traffic. Drivers look at the car ahead and try to maintain a safe distance. If it’s larger, they accelerate, and if it’s shorter – brake. His system suggests that people should develop the same thinking about the car behind them, too.
People have a natural instinct to constantly look forward when driving. What’s even worse – many have already stopped actively thinking about keeping a safe distance at all. Many cars already come with rearview cameras, and high-end vehicles have something called adaptive cruise control. So people wouldn’t have to think about these things. In fact, today only 18% of the US population knows how to drive a stick. Yet, now we want to make them learn to look back, too. Hmm.
Traffic conditions depend on all of us, really. No matter what policies and technologies officials choose to invest in, it all comes down to who uses them. The truth is none will be effective if people keep being negative about them or even worse – start ignoring them completely.
This is why officials’ first task on fighting traffic congestion is to educate people about the situation and the possible solutions. Maybe even put it to vote. Why not? After all, traffic congestion in each city is caused by different factors.
Maybe it will be better if N.Y. adopts fare lanes, while L.A. opts for a holistic restructuring of the public transport system. Each case should be handled individually to achieve the overall most effective results for the country. And people should have a say.