Posted by Gena Gibson, Consultant on 30 May 2012
Traffic jams are a curse of modern life. And they cost more than just wasted time too: vehicles in heavy congestion burn around 30% more fuel, as well as generating higher carbon emissions and air pollution.
Despite decades of transport policy planning and infrastructure investment, congestion costs Europe around 1% of GDP every year. In developing countries, rapid increases in mobility are straining road networks; spare a thought for drivers caught in the 2010 traffic jam in China that lasted nearly two weeks.
But new technologies are opening up opportunities to help, and it is surprising how effective they can be.
Waze is a free smartphone app that uses real-time reports to help drivers avoid congested areas. Driving with the app open will passively contribute information such as speed and location. Studies suggest that even if only 1-5% of cars transmit real-time data about their speed, traffic jams can be identified within five minutes, and other cars equipped with GPS systems can avoid them. The maps and traffic data are all supplied by Waze users, but with more than 17 million of them, the data has become reliable enough that it’s powering local TV traffic reports.
Car sharing schemes have reached many major cities. The biggest scheme, Zipcar, estimates that it saved 1.16 million metric tonnes of CO2 last year, because users tend to drive less when they pay by the hour. Buzzcar takes the concept a step further by allowing people to rent out their own cars through an app. This allows car sharing networks to spontaneously emerge, so that peers don’t have to wait for a program to be installed nearby.
Adaptive cruise control could also help. Drivers tend to slow down on hills, before tunnels or if they see cars ahead of them, causing traffic to bunch up and starting a chain reaction that leads to a jam. Adaptive cruise control keeps speed more constant, stopping jams from forming in the first place. If all cars had it, it could increase the capacity of roads by 20 percent and decrease fuel consumption by 83 percent in congested areas.
City authorities and policy makers can accelerate technology uptake by making direct investment (e.g car sharing programs) or by implementing other initiatives (such as congestion charges). Of course when traffic congestion eases, more people may decide to drive – making the overall effect hard to predict. However, traffic congestion in urban areas is often the outcome of successful development policies that make people want to live in the area. The question is not how to eliminate it but rather, how policies can best mitigate congestion.