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How to solve traffic jams

11|05|2016

Traffic congestion is the bane of every motorist’s life behind the wheel. It means we have to get out of bed earlier, stay at work later and reluctantly hotfoot it out of social engagements prematurely just so we can beat the rush.

Or we face the prospect of sitting in long, slow moving queues, which means more time staring blankly at the car in front of us, and less time doing what we want.

What’s more, the problem is set to worsen. Currently, 54% of the world’s population lives in urban cities. By 2050, this figure is expected to swell to 70% – more people, more cars, more congestion.

In this piece, we take a look at what’s been done to address this escalating problem.

From ‘A to fee’

A number of congestion hotspots around the world have implemented/trialled motoring charges, which have seen some success. In London, for example, the congestion charge around the city centre adds up to £50 per week for drivers using the busiest roads every day.

Unsurprisingly, the number of cars on the road dropped significantly within the first five years of the scheme, while the number of buses, taxis and cycle lanes increased.

Meanwhile, Stockholm’s congestion charge, which was first introduced in 2006, has seen traffic on the city’s roads fall by 30% over a five year period, while Singapore’s innovative road pricing system resulted in 45% less traffic on the roads.

Fewer cars do not necessarily mean less congestion

But fees and penalties don’t get to the root of the issue. As studies have shown, in some cases, fewer cars have simply freed up space for drivers who used to take alternative routes. Plus, traffic jams aren’t always caused by traffic. Road works, poor urban planning and driver error are also to blame, so fewer cars do not necessarily mean less congestion. 

Connected communication

To tackle traffic congestion, cities need to get smarter as they grow. Just as the productivity and efficiency of a workplace depends on joined-up thinking between departments, a city’s transport infrastructure needs communication on all levels – from systems such as red lights and speed limit zones right down to the individuals who want to get from one destination to another.

Scientists, researchers and engineers are already hard at work shaping these smart cities, developing innovative technologies that will cut congestion and some of the hassle involved in motoring without relying on traditional taxes and often-ignored traffic awareness campaigns.

We’re already edging closer to ‘smart city, smart travel’ world

We’re already edging closer to ‘smart city, smart travel’ world. Nowadays, a raft of smartphone applications and connected sat-navs will help get you to your destination in the quickest and easiest manner possible thanks to real-time data and communication from a host of sources.

This is the same type of technology that helps to power ride-sharing schemes, which also help eliminate traffic. Previously, individuals would request a car and driver via a smartphone app, hop in and make their journey alone. Now, though, companies are increasingly offering ride-pooling as standard, where you can share your journey with others going in the same direction for a more affordable price while negating the need for additional cars on the road.

The problem with parking

Curiously enough, it’s not always the actual journey that causes traffic problems. Studies have suggested that, on average, 30% of cars caught up in traffic were looking for a parking space. Sometimes it seems that looking for somewhere to park is more frustrating than battling through the traffic to get there in the first place. This is why smart parking is a hot topic for city planners and mobility pioneers.

Already gaining traction in cities in the US, smart parking sees low-power sensors embedded in the tarmac to track the occupancy of parking spaces. Using information from the sensors, drivers are able to log onto an app which tells them where they have a higher chance of finding a space, meaning less time looking for one and therefore less time clogging up the roads. Other apps allow individuals to alert drivers in the area to an empty spot, or one that they’re about to leave, in return for a modest incentive.

Motoring ahead

Such technology is still in its early stages, but futurists are already looking even further ahead. Fully autonomous cars will almost certainly be a reality within the next few decades – if not sooner – and, as the Atlantic reported in 2015, should help keep congestion to a minimum.

Without the need for human input (and therefore human error), traffic will move freely as cars ‘liaise’ with one another, helping speeds to increase, routes to become optimised and manoeuvres at junctions and roundabouts to become a great deal more efficient.

Moreover, the impact goes beyond cutting traffic, as the same article from the Atlantic noted: “The unsticking of the urban roads is one of the side effects of autonomous cars that will, in turn, change the landscape of cities – essentially eliminating one of the enduring symbols of urban life, the traffic jam full of honking cars and fuming passengers. It will also redefine how we use land in the city, unleashing trillions of dollars of real estate to be used for more than storing cars.”

Smart solutions to a longstanding problem

Traffic congestion is a problem born of growth and development, but it’s growth and development that’s working to ease traffic congestion. If smart communication and connectivity takes centre stage in future urban expansion, we’ll no longer have to race to beat the rush-hour traffic jams because there won’t be any traffic jams to beat.

Images: mandritoiu/Shuuterstock
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"We’re already edging closer to ‘smart city, smart travel’ world"
How smart technology could soon make congested roads a thing of the past
Traffic jams have long cast a shadow over cities - read more on how we're moving away from congestion
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