No magic bullet
Congestion ahead | Despite promising technologies, transportation mode modernization requires better policies and more funding
- By James Schultz
- Apr 17, 2008
Life for many workaday road warriors goes something like this: snarled traffic, chronic
delays, unrelenting commuting stress and excessive time spent getting from point A to
point B. In addition to the intense personal frustration, there is a genuine economic
fear: An inability to increase travel efficiency could choke off the prosperity jurisdictions
everywhere eagerly seek.
Balancing demand and supply has proven elusive for the nation's transportation planners. A
2007 study sanctioned by the Texas Transportation Institute, penned by research scientist David
Schrank and research engineer Tim Lomax, painted a bleak picture. The authors found that traffic
congestion plagues 437 urban areas nationwide and is growing steadily worse in regions of all sizes.
According to the report, congestion annually costs the U.S. economy $78 billion in the form of
4.2 billion "lost hours" and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel. Those figures equate to 105 million
weeks of vacation and 58 fully loaded supertankers, respectively, according to the study's authors.
Large-scale capacity increases, such as new highways, appear to be out of the question. With the
exception of modest new construction to eliminate severe bottlenecks, residents in most localities
have definitively rejected the expense of adding asphalt and traffic lanes. So could technology help?
Perhaps, transportation experts say. The solution will likely involve integrating several components:
real-time, accurate information conveyed to travelers; mobile and stationary sensors for roads and
cars; and sophisticated monitoring systems that track highway incidents and suggest workarounds.
One modest success cited in the study is a
project in Detroit that used advanced traveler
information systems, highway advisory radio,
ramp metering and variable message signs.
After implementation, average vehicle speeds
increased by a little more than five miles an
hour, trip times decreased by almost five minutes,
and overall commuter delays fell by 22
percent. Other projects in London and Stockholm
involving U.S.-based firms such as IBM
Corp. and efforts in Singapore have shown
more substantial progress.
For technology providers, gridlock could
prove profitable. In the next 20 years, bidders
could compete for contracts with aggregate
values swelling to 11 figures.
"The addressable market is enormous," said
Andrew Stauch, vice president of marketing
and management at Mikoh Corp., a McLean,
Va., firm that produces security and digital
marking products. "It's a multibillion-dollar
The Transportation Department's Federal
Highway Administration pegs highway expenditures
nationwide at $4.9 trillion through
2020, $10 trillion through 2035 and $18.3 trillion
through 2055, stated in constant 2005 dollars.
That figure doesn't include public transit
expenditures, which are at least $40 billion a
year and growing.STATIONARY AND MOBILE SENSORS
Tony Ioannidis, a Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.
principal who leads the firm's transportationrelated
business unit, said he believes the major
trend in land transportation modernization is
resource pricing, in which roads are treated as a
valuable commodity that should not be given
away for free. During rush hours, for instance,
travel by car would cost more, but use of public
transit might earn credits that could later be
applied to the cost of automobile commuting in
In such a scenario, one enabling technology
would be vehicle infrastructure integration, a
subset of DOT's Intelligent Vehicle Initiative.
The technology aims to coordinate deployments
of communication technologies on board
all vehicles, public or private. Data would be
transmitted from roadside sensor arrays to
vehicles, back from vehicles to roadsides and on
to highway monitoring stations.
Trucks, cars and buses would essentially
become mobile data collectors, anonymously
and continuously transmitting traffic and roadcondition
information throughout the transportation
network. Transportation agencies
would then apply the data in real time to alleviate
congestion by directing emergency responders
to breakdowns and accidents, changing
traffic light patterns, and increasing tolls on hot
lanes, whose price would fluctuate depending
But, Ioannidis said, "information technology
by itself won't do anything. You have to incorporate
the policy side, the regulations, and you have to increase funding. You need to find techniques
to use the resource in the right way."
Under a $6.2 million contract, Booz Allen
Hamilton helped San Francisco's Metropolitan
Transportation Commission develop, test and
implement a regional fare-collection program
based on a smart-card system that works across
multiple transit modes, including bus, train,
light rail, subway and ferry. The firm envisions
developing next-generation automotive technologies
such as active navigation systems, onboard
lane-departure alerts and data recorders.MONEY TO REDUCE CONGESTION
For technology vendors, the real money is likely
to come from DOT's National Strategy to
Reduce Congestion on America's Transportation
Network, or the Congestion Initiative,
introduced in 2006. A major component is the
Urban Partnership Agreement, which awards
grants to large metropolitan areas to develop
integrated approaches to reducing congestion.
To qualify, regions must offer a comprehensive
plan to implement what DOT calls the four
Ts: tolling, transit, telecommuting, and technology
and operations. In the first case, grant
recipients must implement a congestion-pricing
or variable-toll demonstration. The
transit metric would involve creating or
expanding express bus services, bus rapid transit
or other innovative commuter services.
The telecommuting component would
require securing agreements from major area
employers to establish or expand telecommuting
and flex-scheduling programs, and technology
and operations would require proof of leading-
edge approaches to improving transportation
In early April, the New York State Assembly
refused a plan drawn up by New York City to
assess an $8 toll for private vehicles entering
midtown Manhattan from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. As a
result, New York City stands to lose more than
$350 million in federal transportation funds it
had been expecting as a Congestion Initiative
awardee. Also on the losing end were companies
bidding to handle implementation,
including DMJM Harris, Siemens Corp., Raytheon
Co., IBM and Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc.
Congestion pricing remains controversial, in
part because of fears that traffic will not behave
as planners hope. In theory, charging drivers a
fee that varies by traffic volume or time of day
should promote free flow on roadways.
Discretionary rush-hour highway travel would
be diverted to other transportation modes or to
off-peak periods, taking advantage of the fact
that many rush-hour drivers on a typical urban
highway are not commuters. Planners point to
variable charges that have been successfully
used by airlines, cell phone providers and electric
utilities to manage demand and supply.
"With congestion pricing, there are a lot of
distribution effects that are difficult to deal
with," said Ronald Kirby, director of transportation
planning at the Metropolitan Washington
Council of Governments. "But the use of roads
has been underpriced. Tolling means roads
properly priced shouldn't experience many
delays. When traffic increases, so do the tolls,
and we should be able to maintain high levels"
of traffic.SMART CARS, CHRONIC DELAYS
Electronic vehicle registration (EVR) could be
one way to help traffic move efficiently. Vehicles
equipped with wireless sensors similar to those
used for toll-road easy-pass systems would
broadcast their position and speed. Chokepoints
could be pinpointed quickly.
"One of the potential applications [of EVR]
is traffic management," Stauch said. "Traffic is
like a supply chain; different assets are flowing
through. It's all about visibility. With the tags,
you can monitor the flow at different times of
day and in different conditions."
A more immediate solution will likely involve
faster emergency response to highway mishaps.
Moving vehicles out of the line of sight of passing
motorists can make a huge difference in
traffic flow, said Connie Sorrell, chief of system
operations at the Virginia DOT.
Beyond such measures, Sorrell expects technology
to eventually fill the gap. "The next
quantum leap in highway safety will be making
cars smarter," she said. "The application of
wireless, mobile technology would help
motorists recognize and avoid events."
With the advent of an integrated approach to
traffic management, Ioannidis said he foresees
opportunities. "Large integrators are investing
in everything from EVR to transportation management
software systems. The opportunity is
huge. It's worldwide, and there are deals in play
from Asia to South America."
Still unresolved are the thorny problems of
urban sprawl and suburban growth, issues not
solved by IT or embedded hardware. Although
planners might be able to add sensors to roadsides
and roadways, they have little control over
where people choose to live and how they travel
from home to office and back again.
"Growth is outpacing the ability to build
roads and infrastructure," said Tom Harrington,
director of long-range planning at the Washington
Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
"There's a widespread recognition [that] you
can't just do one thing. Even if you add capacity,
you still need [public] transit and traveldemand
For the foreseeable future, delays will remain
a component of urban travel.James Schultz is a freelance writer in Norfolk, Va.