Updated: Jul 20, 2005 10:40 AM
Stuck in traffic?
Anyone who commutes by car (or has driven to the beach) knows that traffic is getting
worse. In May, the Texas Transportation Institute released its 2005 Urban Mobility
Report, a study that measures trends in traffic congestion from 1982 to 2003. Today's
average traveler spends 47 hours in rush-hour traffic annually, up from 16 hours in 1982.
And those delays come at a cost: In 2003, Americans were out US$63.1 billion in time
and gasoline due to idling in traffic.
Obvious solutions to alleviate traffic would be increased road capacity, more mass transit
and more carpools, but these can be problematic; road construction is expensive, and
collective commuting goes against Americans' independent mind-set. But don't you fret,
there are a number of technology-related initiatives that promise to ease our chronic
At the Center for Infrastructure and Transportation Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute (RPI), director George List is leading a pilot project called the Advanced
Traveler Information System, or ATIS. With ATIS, the speed, location and direction of
approximately 200 cars equipped with wireless GPS and pocket PC devices are tracked
by a central server at RPI. When these cars travel along U.S. Route 4 and other roadways
near Albany, N.Y., their location is plotted on a map. Based on the progress of the cars,
the drivers are sent voice-based updates that alert them to impending traffic problems and
that recommend alternate routes.
Drivers of Acura's 2005 RL sedan can get real-time traffic information from XM Radio
Service, a company that transmits radio signals to cars via satellite. The Acura system
monitors traffic speed, accidents, construction and the weather. Drivers receive voice-
based updates and--because the broadcasts are integrated with the navigation system--
also receive suggestions for alternate routes. The Acura option isn't for everyone. For
starters, the service is only available in 20 metropolitan areas (including notoriously
congested Los Angeles and New York). And then, of course, there's the RL's base price
of nearly $50,000.
Something else that could ease traffic congestion is often given short shrift by state and
local transportation agencies, and yet doesn't have to include whiz-bang technology:
"Making traffic signals work more efficiently can improve traffic," says Shelley Row, the
associate executive director of technical programs at the Institute of Transportation
Engineers (ITE). Specifically, says Row, municipalities need to analyze signal timing at
specific intersections every three to five years and make adjustments, something that a
majority of agencies don't do. Recently, the National Transportation Operations Coalition
released the National Traffic Signal Report Card, in which 378 transportation agencies in
49 states rated their own traffic signal operations. The overall grade: a D-minus.
When it comes to managing signals, the city of Bellevue, Wash., came in at the head of
the class. Mark Poch, the city's traffic engineering manager, says 90 percent of Bellevue's
173 traffic signals are networked to a central computer. Closed-circuit TV cameras
monitor traffic flow, enabling engineers--with the help of a PC--to tweak signal timing as
situations warrant. And while Poch can't quantify time or money savings, he knows the
incremental effect is significant. Take a busy intersection with 50,000 cars and then shave
delays for each car by just five seconds. Multiply that throughout a metropolitan area, and
there will be huge savings in time, gas and, ultimately, driver frustration.