All News and Perspectives

Cutting the Costs of Congestion

April 3, 2017 Steve Caya, GTiMA Board Member

Does sitting in gridlocked rush-hour traffic seem worth $124 billion a year to you?

That’s the yearly cost of traffic congestion, according to Forbes’ coverage of a 2014 study by INRIX and the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Yes, you read that right. Not only is sitting in traffic a hassle for just about every individual that drives a car in the United States, it comes at a tremendous price.

The study breaks down the wasted money into two categories. Direct losses, which arise from wasted fuel, harm to the environment, and the loss of time devoted to productivity. And indirect losses arising from the extra expenses posed to businesses. It’s more expensive to transport goods, attend meetings and conduct business in congested areas. Businesses, of course, pass that cost on to consumers.

$124 billion is such a huge number, it invites some perspective. That’s more than what the U.S. government spends every year on transportation. Or on housing. Or on protecting the environment, scientific research, and tending to international affairs combined. Given the necessity of these programs, this large chunk of GDP disappearing every year for no tangible benefit isn’t just an annoying waste. It’s a tragic loss of badly-needed money, leaked minute-by-minute in traffic jams, every day, every year.

There’s good news: there is a solution. Experts tell us that AVs could reduce congestion by 80 percent or more. They’d be able to do this through vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Humans, of course, lack the ability to be in constant contact with other nearby drivers in traffic. As a result, moving through a traffic jam is quite inefficient. The majority of time wasted happens after the clearance of blockage ahead. There’s a start-stop chain effect as individual drivers recognize it’s safe to move forward. A few seconds here and there as each car in line starts to move on a badly congested highway adds up. Cars that communicate with one another can know, simultaneously, that it’s time to move and begin accelerating at the same rate as a unit – and that alone would end the traffic jam as we know it.

Bottom line, we’re not equipped, as AVs are, with sensors that allow us to see through visual obstacles to assess whatever’s ahead. We’re not in touch with other drivers. And even if we somehow were, it’d still be impossible for drivers to act with the precision necessary to move through slowly-unraveling traffic jams. The precision of movement promised by AVs acting in concert has countless benefits.

But wait, there’s even more good news: we don’t have to wait for the AV revolution. Because there is a lot to figure out when it comes to the cloud-based communication AVs will use, AVs are not likely to comprise the majority of cars on the road. Thus, they’re not a realistic fix in the short term. Luckily, smart cities and data collection specialists have roles to play as well. According to the Forbes coverage of the congestion waste study, “just as online traffic is managed through routers and optimized, traffic on the roadways could be better-managed and optimized through better data, which in turn would lead to dynamic traffic signal timing, dynamic high-occupancy vehicle lanes, congestion-based pricing.”

That’s right, real-time data collection would make a big difference in the battle against congestion. Satellite navigation systems, GPS in cars and trucks, information gathered by cellular carriers, and devoted smartphone applications can all provide layers of data which, once aggregated, can help dynamic infrastructure function at a level which would offset a large portion of total congestion.

As an example, Forbes’ coverage noted that Los Angeles – which has the dubious distinction of accounting for nearly 20 percent of the USA’s total congestion costs – recently took a stab at using data to cut congestion. They “used real traffic data to optimize the traffic signal timing on more than 10,000 traffic signals.” But one of the experts who conducted the study wasn’t satisfied with this effort, simply because it relied on static data. “What you really want is dynamic data, so that the traffic signals across a city could change dynamically in terms of intervals to better move traffic around a network,” the expert said.

So bottom line, while AVs show promise in the long run, smart infrastructure seemingly show promise in the short run. Further investment in the Internet of Everything and a smarter approach to data mapping and management are things we can do now. If we do, we’ll see a steady decline in congestion — and as a result, a rise in productivity and a decline in our carbon footprint, and household budgets will get some direly-needed relief as less money winds up going to gas. We still have many advances yet to make in clearing the way for the AV revolution, but investing in smart infrastructure would be a heck of a good start.

It reminds me of the old saying: “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” In this case, which set of benefits will lead to the next set of benefits – smart infrastructure or AVs?

I say who cares, give me my scrambled eggs.