If there’s one thing everyone can agree to hate in this world, it’s traffic.
People in the United States spend an average of 42 hours a year sitting in traffic, and it’s not just unpleasant. It costs the country $160 billion a year, exposes us to high levels of stress and toxic fumes, and on top of all that, it’s bad for the environment. Not that anybody really needs an argument for why traffic is bad. It’s a pretty universal evil.
We have a good idea what causes traffic jams, but the real issue is figuring out what we can actually do to fix the problem. Plenty of ideas have been discussed and even executed, from encouraging companies to allow remote work and flexible schedules to building more carpool lanes. Plenty of people are also hoping that driverless cars will be the long-awaited solution to our traffic woes (although some experts aren’t so sure). And of course, there are always alternate transportation methods like bicycling, walking, or other short-commute options.
Still, as long as cities keep growing and people prefer driving as a primary method of getting around, we’re likely to require a number of different solutions to even put a dent in the problem. Fortunately, a lot of smart people are working on solutions, and many have promise. Here are three tech innovations to reduce traffic:
1. Smart traffic lights
Have you ever sat at a red light while watching the complete absence of cars coming from the other direction, or found yourself stuck at a light that’s so backed up that you have to sit through the red light three or four times before you’re able to actually get through?
Most traffic lights work on a set schedule and can’t respond to the traffic trends of the moment, which creates those familiar, frustrating moments when you can see how traffic could be moving more efficiently but can’t do anything about it.
Many cities are starting to invest in intelligent traffic systems that can help alleviate the issue. These systems include smart lights that have sensors installed around the intersection that register the volume of traffic coming each way. The lights are able to respond to the information from the sensors in real time so that the light changes ensure the most efficient flow of traffic.
And it works. When the city of Tyler, Texas implemented smart traffic light technology, residents saw a 22% decrease in traffic delays.
A number of cities are starting to use smart traffic light technology or planning to in the future, meaning more people will soon start to see the benefits of it.
2. Big data
“Big data” has been a trendy term for several years now, and it seems to be carving its influence on a number of industries. For all its applications, big data’s role in improving traffic issues around the world might just be one significant way it stands to make our lives better.
So what is big data?
Simply put, big data is a large volume of data, often complex, which can be manipulated and analyzed to identify trends and other findings not (or not as) visible in anecdotal information or smaller data sets.
Cities and companies have access to data on traffic conditions and driving behavior from a growing number of sources. Cities with smart traffic lights collect data from the sensors described above, and many cities have traffic cameras providing additional information. The app Waze, which tracks real-time traffic patterns and roadside incidents, collects a significant amount of data, and companies like Uber and Lyft track information like the routes their drivers take and how long those routes take at different times of day. All of this data contains inferences and answers to how people drive, where and when, which could lead to resolutions for problematic (read: heavy traffic) scenarios.
In short, the data needed for cities to better understand the flow of traffic on their streets is already out there. Bringing that data together and putting it to use can result in meaningful changes in key ways:
- City planners can analyze the data to ensure future road projects and improvements are focused on the solutions that provide the greatest benefits.
- Cities can deploy traffic cops to the areas with the highest incidence of accidents or people behaving recklessly to prevent future accidents.
- Driver education can be better designed to discourage the activities that data shows cause the most collisions or traffic delays.
The better we’re able to understand traffic – and not just in a general sense, but the specific traffic conditions and trends that affect individual cities and roads – the better we’ll get at finding solutions that effectively address the problem.
3. Traffic-busting apps
You may already be familiar with the aforementioned Waze, which helps drivers find alternate driving routes to take based on real-time information about factors like traffic and construction. It’s just one of several apps that can make a difference in our traffic problems.
One of the easiest ways to reduce traffic, at least in theory, is for people heading the same direction to double up and share a car. But in practice, it’s not always easy to find someone heading your way. Ridesharing apps help solve that problem with their carpool functions. MIT research has found that ridesharing apps that include a carpooling option (such as UberPool and Lyft Line) could reduce traffic by 75%. That’s a best-case scenario, as more people would have to get on board with using the carpool option than are likely to, but the potential for improvement is clearly there.
In the Netherlands, the app Smoover has been used to make real-time recommendations for speed limit changes that can improve traffic flow. Simulations found that if enough drivers used the app’s recommendations, it would reduce traffic time by 8%.
We can’t expect one technology or innovation to solve all our traffic problems, but with so many great minds devoted to examining possible solutions, there’s hope. A combination of good ideas, technological innovations to bring them to life, and drivers willing to use them could help to solve the traffic issues that currently plague so many people, or at least make them a little more bearable.