7 Ways to Tackle Urban Traffic Congestion Without Adding a Single Lane of Roads
by Gianluca Lange
More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. There are many benefits that come from millions of people living, working, and interacting in close proximity to one another…
Traffic, however, is not one of them.
More than just an annoyance that impacts quality of life, chronic traffic congestion can be bad for the economy and the environment. Worldmapper reports Thailand has the longest commuting times in the world, a total of 37 million hours is spent travelling to work every day. The average working person living in Thailand spends 2 hours on the road travelling to and from work while the world average commuting time is 40 minutes, one-way. Department of Land Transport’s statistics reports that Thailand has private cars from 566,643 cars in 2011 to 949,148 cars in 2013. It had increased 67.5% within 2 years.
By mid-century, the percentage of people living in cities worldwide is projected to grow to 75%, placing further stress on roadways. Simply adding additional lanes to roadways is not a viable path forward.
Fortunately, cities have other options at their disposal to help tackle and tame urban traffic congestion. They also have access to sophisticated software tools that can help simulate the impact of these solutions before anything is built. This allows urban planners to experiment with multiple scenarios and select the best mix of solutions to address their traffic woes.
Transit-oriented development. For many large, sprawling cities—think Bangkok, Samut Prakan, Nakorn Ratchasrima and Chiang Mai—the private car has been the primary mode of transport, taking people from their single family home to their job and back again. Before very long, the roads start to get clogged because everyone is driving to work. By building high-density housing within walking distance of an existing transit system, cities can encourage use of mass transport—which takes private vehicles off the roads during rush hour. Portland, Oregon and the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, for example, have been very successful at focusing new development around existing light-rail stops.
Fast moving buses. Bus rapid transit (BRT) varies from region to region, but it typically involves creating a dedicated lane for buses on surface roads, so that buses can move large amounts of people from point A to point B more quickly. Thailand also has adopted BRT in crowded area like Sathorn district to Ratchaphruek district; 12 stations, 15.9 Km. of System length and has 16,000 people used per day[i]. As with any transit decision, a tradeoff is involved: if you put in a BRT lane, you lose a lane for cars. Software models can help analyze the transit network as a whole to show how many more riders a stretch of road could carry with a BRT system in place and how much time could potentially be shaved off of daily commutes.
Smart traffic lights. Nobody likes sitting at a red light—especially when no cross-traffic is using the green light. Adaptive traffic lights vary their signals in real time to improve traffic flow. And these adaptive traffic lights are hardly just for private cars. Remember our bus rapid transit system? Adaptive traffic light systems can be designed to give BRT buses green lights if they’re running behind schedule so that they can catch up. The result? More reliable BRT service, which encourages ridership.
Traffic flow adjustments. This may sound counterintuitive, but when traffic becomes very busy, you can actually get more throughput if you slow everyone down a bit. Metered entrances at highway on-ramps – or similar meters along the roadway—control the speed dynamic and help prevent the start-stop traffic that tends to create traffic jams. Active traffic management systems have been implemented in several countries—including Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and demonstrate how technology can increase the capacity of a fixed stretch of road.
Congestion pricing tolls. Used to great success in places like London and Singapore, congestion pricing offers another way for cities to get more capacity out of an existing road. By charging people a toll to drive into the city center, congestion pricing creates an incentive for people to carpool, so that the road carries more people per hour than it normally would. Of course, people can still drive by themselves if they wish to pay for the privilege. Fortunately, the revenue generated by these drivers often goes towards towards road repairs and improvements. In Thailand, congestion pricing in inner town had been proposed to the government before but this project still under the study and development.
Bike-sharing services. Bikes take up less space than cars, which means that you can fit more bicyclists than cars onto any given stretch of road. Thailand also campaign for more bicyclists to decrease pollution and traffic jam in Bangkok. Traffic and Transportation Department plans to add bicycle land around town over 240 routes[ii]. And while an increase in bicyclists means taking away some existing road space to create a bike lane, these are generally half the width of a car lane. Bike-sharing schemes can help encourage people to swap their car in favor of this alternate mode of transportation. As of April 2013, there were approximately 535 bike-sharing programs in cities around the world, with an estimated fleet of 517,000 bicycles. As a side benefit to the city as a whole, bikes are good for the health of the riders and good for the environment, since they don’t rely on fossil fuels.
Self-driving cars. Can driverless vehicles play a role in easing traffic? The concept isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem… Consider cruise control, which is a very simple variation on a self-driving car that helps drivers maintain a set speed. Adaptive cruise control, which many cars now feature, takes this one step further by automatically adjusting the vehicle speed to maintain a safe distance from vehicles ahead. If we take this technology to an extreme, we could someday have driverless cars driving six feet behind another at a steady speed of 60 miles per hour—which would allow more cars to make use of the road than is possible today.
As more and more people gravitate towards urban centers, cities will need to find new approaches to dealing with traffic congestion. By exploring the full range of available options—rather than simply building more roads—cities can effectively tackle ever-worsening traffic and make urban areas more livable places for the coming decades.
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