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Technology Helps Unsnarl Growing Traffic Congestion Problem

As the economy improves, traffic congestion has grown worse, according to a recent survey. One cost-effective solution to the problem is technology.

by / September 1, 2015

The average travel delay per commuter nationwide is more than twice what it was in 1982, according to the latest version of the annual Urban Mobility Scorecard released last week. 

“From a traffic and congestion standpoint, we've recovered from the recession,” said Rick Schuman, vice president and general manager for public sector at INRIX, a provider of traffic data that produces the Urban Mobility Scorecard partnership with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “We are back to all-time highs and, depending on the region, its worse than it was pre-recession. The trajectory is going the wrong direction in most U.S. cities.”
The report found that growing urban populations and lower fuel prices are contributing to congestion growth. Washington, D.C. tops the list of gridlock-plagued cities, with 82 hours of delay per commuter, followed by Los Angeles (80 hours), San Francisco (78 hours), New York (74 hours) and Boston (64 hours).
Drivers on America’s top 10 worst roads waste on average 84 hours (or 3.5 days a year) in gridlock —  two times the national average. Of these roads, six are in Los Angeles, two are in New York and the remaining two are in Chicago. Nine other cities have roads ranked in the top 50.
While congestion is a sign of a healthy economy, it’s currently outpacing the nation’s ability to build infrastructure, said the report. And if the economy continues to grow, urban roadway congestion will continue to worsen. By 2020, the annual delay per commuter will grow from 42 hours to 47 hours, total delay nationwide will grow from 6.9 billion hours to 8.3 billion hours, and the total cost of congestion will jump from $160 billion to $192 billion, the report predicts. 
But infrastructure alone can’t solve congestion problems, according to the study’s authors.
“Solutions must involve a mix of strategies, combining new construction, better operations, and more public transportation options as well as flexible work schedules,” Schuman said.
Technology can play a big role in improving congestion, the report found. On the nation’s freeways, for example, technology is already being used to help cities identify and clear incidents faster. 
“Incident management programs are becoming kind of the baseline and the key component in managing the traditional freeway system in the best way possible,” said Schuman.
High-occupancy express lanes and dedicated dynamic message signs that provide accident data, estimated delay information and alternative routes can also help. 
Opportunities are also emerging on the arterial side, with some cities beginning to use analytics to improve signal timing, among other things. 
“A lot of investment goes into maintaining signal systems,” said Schuman. “Yet the feds estimate something like five percent of overall delays are attributed to inefficient signal timing. But it’s incredibly difficult to optimize signal systems with traditional approaches.”
Some cities are now conducting pilot projects that leverage data to identify signals that are not performing well in order to improve signal timing and inner-city traffic flow.
“Cloud-based data that INRIX and other firms are bringing to the table is allowing for analysis and visibility of signal system performance that hasn't been available before,” Schuman said.
Technology is also being used to improve parking and optimize freight movement in cities.
Schuman points to a recent example where Indiana DOT had to close a heavily traveled bridge on Interstate 65 between Indianapolis and Lafayette. For a variety of reasons, DOT’s best option for handling the problem was a 40-mile detour, which had the potential to cause huge delays because the route was not built to handle two lanes of interstate traffic.
Indiana DOT worked with INRIX and Purdue University to monitor data on the detoured traffic flow and were able to make some decisions and modifications quickly. Within the first couple of days, Indiana DOT put up temporary signals in a few key places, and then used the data again to see the impact of those changes on overall delays. 
“They basically took a non-interstate facility and optimized it to get as much throughput as they could and to minimize the total delay,” said Shuman. 
Schuman said the type of data available to cities now can not only improve current traffic flow and congestion, but can also help cities make better informed decisions as they plan future infrastructure investments. States and regions including Maryland, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Texas are leading the way in using data to identify their worst bottlenecks and then creating plans for addressing those problems. 
“In Baltimore, for example, the Metropolitan Planning Organization has the tools and data now that give them a complete picture of freeways and arterials,” said Schuman. “Then they can translate that into a much more balanced and intentional set of projects and programs to attack the congestion.”
Editor's note: This story was updated at 7:10 a.m. on Sept. 3 to remove Indiana University from the story. In addition to working with INRIX, Indiana DOT worked with Purdue University.

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Justine Brown Contributing Writer
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