traffic jam

Interactive traffic tech can ease congestion

When cities start to deploy connected technologies, the first problem they usually address is traffic congestion. Commuters sitting in traffic are wasting time and fuel, and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and wear and tear on roadways. The traditional solution has been wider roads and more highways, but researchers at the University of Houston think intelligent transportation systems (ITS) that leverage robust 511 traffic information systems and apps like Waze and Google Maps may be a better choice.

ITS solutions use a broad range of electronic and communications technologies for applications such as electronic toll collection that increases the operational efficiency and convenience of toll collection, ramp meters that control the flow of vehicles entering the freeway and traffic signal coordination that synchronizes multiple intersections to enhance directional movements. On the commuter side, websites and apps give drivers real-time traffic, accident and construction information so they can make informed decisions regarding trip departures, routes and mode of travel.

To understand whether and how ITS deployment affects traffic congestion, Bauer College of Business Dean Paul Pavlou and his colleagues analyzed longitudinal data from ITS technologies deployed in 99 urban areas in the U.S. from 1994 to 2014, including traffic-heavy cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York-Newark, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Washington, D.C., among others.

The researchers found that the adoption of 511 systems was associated with a significant decrease in traffic congestion, saving over $4.7 billion dollars and 175 million hours in travel time annually in U.S. cities. 511 systems also contributed to a reduction of about 53 million gallons of fossil fuel consumption and over 10 billion pounds of CO2 emissions, according to the university’s website.

The technology is most effective at reducing traffic congestion when two things happen: commuters use more online services for traffic information, including such apps as Waze, and when state governments incorporate more advanced functions into their 511 traveler information systems.

Not only do ITS help individual commuters make better travel decisions, the technology also helps local governments develop an urban traffic management capability, researchers said.

Not all cities use a full-featured 511 system, but many collaborate with private companies to design and build messaging signs, roadside cameras and solar-powered radar detection sites, Pavlou said.

Using large-scale technology systems in conjunction with real-time traffic apps at the individual level is less expensive and more effective than only spending funds to expand and maintain roadways, the researchers concluded.

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