Fighting Traffic Congestion with Information Technology

By Wachs, Martin | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Fighting Traffic Congestion with Information Technology


Wachs, Martin, Issues in Science and Technology


Traffic congestion is a vexing problem felt by residents of most urban areas. Despite centuries of effort and billions of dollars worth of public spending to alleviate congestion, the problem appears to be getting worse. Between 1980 and 1999, vehicle-miles of travel on U.S. roadways grew by 76 percent, while lane miles increased by only 3 percent. Average daily vehicular volumes on urban interstates rose by 43 percent between 1985 and 1999, from 10.331 million to 14.757 million. In a study of 68 urban areas published in 2001, the Texas Transportation Institute reported that the percentage of daily travel taking place during congested periods increased from 32 percent in 1982 to 45 percent in 1999; typical motorists faced seven hours per day of congested roadways in 1999 compared with five hours in 1982. According to the Federal Highway Administration, road delays (defined as travel time in excess of that at free flow conditions) increased by 8.5 percent between 1993 and 1997. Congestion also pollutes the air and wastes precious fuel.

Despite the exasperation that traffic congestion causes, most people know surprisingly little about it or what can be done about it, and much of what is stated in the media is oversimplification. We live in a society in which, for political and social reasons, we consistently label congestion a major problem to be solved but find it unacceptable to adopt the most effective solutions. Indeed, the political debate over the issue indicates that we actually prefer the problem to the solutions. If our current path continues, in the coming years we will implement innovations to mitigate worsening traffic and expand the transportation system to accommodate growth in travel to some extent, but we will likely shy away from measures that will literally cure the problem.

There is one factor, however, with the potential to change the course that we are on: information technology. There are a wide variety of applications of information technology that are just beginning to be implemented that could be far more significant in our struggle to defeat traffic congestion than the building of new highways and transit routes or more government regulation. In fact, we now have the technical means to finally "solve" the congestion problem.

Mixed blessing

Although we always label congestion a problem to be solved, it is surely not all bad. In the United States, worsening traffic congestion is most often associated with prosperity rather than poverty and with growth in population and business rather than decline. Congested city centers are usually the most exciting and high-rent of all urban environments, home to dynamic industries, tourist attractions, and cultural activities. Traffic congestion becomes less pronounced during recessions, and stagnant rust belt cities would willingly trade high unemployment rates and vacant industrial tracts for some troublesome traffic congestion. When and where it reaches very high levels, traffic congestion can become self-correcting; for example, when businesses choose to leave an area because it is too crowded and plagued by delays.

Politicians, not surprisingly, want to have their cake and eat it too. They want the growth and economic vitality that bring congestion, yet they also want to control or reduce that congestion. They worry that congestion will kill the goose that laid the golden egg by slowing growth and driving investment elsewhere, but refuse to implement effective strategies to relieve congestion because stringent solutions might, like congestion itself, redirect growth to other areas. Although technical experts could actually solve the problem of congestion, their solutions are politically unacceptable because they threaten economic growth along with congestion. In theory, automobiles could be banned from sectors of city centers; bridge tolls could be raised to such high levels that they would reduce traffic backups; and taxes on gasoline could be made so high that people would increasingly use mass transit and cycling. …

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