The way to relieve traffic congestion, say many on the right, is to build more roads. Not so, say many on the left. Far better to build more public transit to lure people out of their cars, freeing up road space.
Either solution is partial at best and either can be ruinously expensive, as seen in Boston’s Big Dig ($24-billion and counting) and Toronto’s Metrolinx (estimated at $50-billion). And neither is necessary. As Singapore and others have shown, software can turn our now-clogged roads into smart roads, creating effective new road capacity that eliminates the need for either major new highways or mass transit.
The gold standard in urban transportation is the city-state of Singapore, a densely populated island where most commute to work via one of the world’s most advanced, most intensively used, most comprehensive and most efficient public transit system. Because the island had little land to dedicate to roads, starting in 1998 it pioneered an electronic road toll system that charged high amounts in heavily trafficked areas during rush hour to encourage drivers to shift their schedules to less congested periods.
While this approach was miles ahead of other cities in allaying congestion – the goal of keeping traffic moving at 45 mph or better on expressways and 20 mph on city streets has been generally met — it nevertheless left much to be desired. Because the prices in particular zones were adjusted only every six months, new congestion that materialized would persist until new rates could be set. The delayed reactions couldn’t deal with congestion hot spots at all. And the infrastructure used — overhead gantries that deducted money from smartcards as cars drove through – became eyesores and expensive as ever more gantries were built in attempts to keep up with and fine tune Singapore’s growing traffic.
To solve these problems, Singapore’s traffic planners decided to switch to the next generation of tolling – satellite technology that tracks traffic along all routes, raising rates on the fly along roads whose traffic was moving too slowly to nudge drivers onto less congested routes, and lowering rates on the fly when roads could accommodate more cars without creating congestion.
The city started by having four companies compete against each other in an 18-month trial, each in a different area of the city, to see whether satellite technology worked as well in practice as it did in theory. That trial proved successful and the government has now begun implementation. Once the satellite-based system is in place, drivers will be paying more than they do now during the height of rush hour, less when roads aren’t heavily congested, and about the same overall.
The same technique – called dynamic pricing – is increasingly coming into use in some highways in the U.S., successfully ending congestion. Singapore is applying the dynamic pricing concept to all roads, with the same expected result – an end to congestion. Traffic planners will be able to decide what speeds they want to maintain along what routes and, by tweaking prices up and down dynamically as needed, they will be able to keep traffic flowing smoothly continually. Instead of building more roads, the same roads will be handling more throughput.
Other road innovations in another technologically savvy country – Israel – will stretch road capacity further still. A major contributor to urban congestion in downtown cores stems from drivers circling city blocks looking for parking spots – that’s what 30% of the cars are typically doing, according to an average of various studies. Tel Aviv drivers now have relief, thanks to a company called Parko that predicts when parking spots will free up near their destination. A growing number of participants in Parko – they already represent 10% of Tel Aviv drivers – let Parko tap into the location software in their smartphones, letting Parko understand, for example, where they’ve parked and how long it takes them to walk from their car to their office. When they leave their office and start walking to their car, Parko will then let a driver who will soon be arriving in the vicinity know when the spot will become available.
Another Israeli innovation – Pink Park – rents out spare parking spots that small businesses may have by the hour, providing the businesses with extra income while further relieving pressure for street parking. Eventually all these technologies along with other road usage innovations will be seamlessly integrated, allowing drivers to travel from point A to point B, confident not only that they will face no traffic snarl-ups along the route but also that they will have a convenient parking spot waiting for them at journey’s end. Singapore’s system, in fact, anticipates incorporating street parking.
These innovations will soon shelve the major new roads and the major new transit schemes that our traffic planners have in the works. No need for governments to expropriate businesses for road widenings and no need for them to expropriate farms for new freeways. No need for drivers to endure years of detours and other disruptions while the new infrastructure is built. No sucker punches to the taxpayer, as projects come in years late and billions of dollars over budget. And no need to put up with more congestion!
Lawrence Solomon is Executive Director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute. Lawrence Solomon@nextcity.com