Collaborative computing has potential to reduce gridlock

Thomas R. Temin

State and local governments are trying to forge a revolution using the tools of incremental change.
In jurisdiction after jurisdiction, authorities are grappling with traffic. Although automobile registrations in the last three decades have quadrupled, the number of roads has grown by only about 3 percent.

Citizens bemoan traffic snarls, but building new roads is as politically popular as creating solid-waste dumps. For example, in the Washington area, neighborhood groups fought in court for years to keep a new bridge from being enlarged to 12 lanes from 10, although the current span is one of the worst causes of bottlenecks on I-95 between Maine and Florida.

Scientists who study traffic patterns say they behave like a fluid or network packets. Only so much fits in one place at one time. But pipes, whether water or wire, can be enlarged. The fact that bandwidth can be increased without limit is one of the transforming qualities of computer networking. Not so the concrete ribbons of the nation's roadways.

No wonder transportation officials are looking to sensors, cameras, information signs, computer-controlled signals and cross-jurisdictional approaches to better manage traffic.

Few officials believe they can ever make snarled rush hours into Sunday drives in the country. Their efforts are more like triage to stave off disaster.

These efforts, some of which are outlined in our Page 1 story, seek to keep things from degenerating into total gridlock.

Public transportation as a solution to traffic overload is a utopian ideal, but probably not much more.

Proponents of telecommuting often cite its potential for helping relieve traffic. The trouble is that even with a networking infrastructure available to most people, a remote setup leaves workers, well, remote. That's where current networking research shows promise.

Researchers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois are prototyping what they call persistent collaborative environments. More than just continuous network connections or videoconferencing, the environments enable unprecedented interaction among remote users.

If commercialized, such environments are just the kind of technology that could lure enough people out of their offices to have a measurable effect on traffic.

Governmental systems can mitigate traffic, but not reduce it. Government funded research might yield an answer.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


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