Traffic is awful. This is how location technology is helping to make it better.
- Traffic is a major problem in cities around the world, especially as more people flock there in the next few decades.
- Location technology can help cities analyze traffic patterns to reduce congestion and commuting time.
- Urban transit systems can also benefit from the use of location data.
Today, 55% of the world's population lives in urban areas, and is expected to reach 68% by 2050, according to the United Nations. As more people flock to cities worldwide, transportation systems are being pushed to the breaking point. The result is congestion, pollution, accidents, stress, and a declining quality of life. The situation will only get worse, unless municipalities find new solutions. Even if cities expand their public transportation networks, the number of cars worldwide is expected to double by 2040, according to the World Economic Forum.
Cities can't eliminate traffic congestion over night, but modern technology can help them manage it better. By viewing urban planning through the lens of location, cities can make roads and highways safer and less congested and help drivers navigate more efficiently around accidents and construction work. Cities have the opportunity now to harness the power of aggregated and anonymized road environment data to better understand and design transportation infrastructure to meet the needs of their residents.
Here are just a few of the ways location technology is helping to fix our traffic problems.
Better traffic management and planning
Adding more lanes to a road has proven to do little to ease traffic congestion due to the phenomenon of "induced demand." Plus, building new roads, highways, and transit systems is an often slow and expensive process. Cities however can collect and analyze traffic data in unprecedented ways to manage today's traffic demand better and plan for future capacity.
Most cities create traffic models based on driver surveys, but they're subjective and time-consuming to collect. Since they're only undertaken about once a decade, information is often out of date by the time they're published.
Data from anonymized GPS and vehicle sensors can take transportation planning to the next level. The Utah Department of Transportation is partnering with applied informatics company Iteris and location technology provider HERE Technologies to collect real-time traffic data, including information about construction-related detours, delays, accidents, and weather impacts across every arterial road and freeway in the state's 84,899 square miles. Up-to-the-minute traffic and road information allows officials to adjust the timing of traffic lights and reroute traffic for maximum efficiency.
Utah's DOT is leveraging the power of HERE data to objectively evaluate congestion statewide. At the same time, officials at the department have tapped HERE data to allocate funding, to monitor traffic during construction, to evaluate project benefits and even to improve roadway designs.
HERE also provides real time traffic data for the rapidly growing city of Toronto, as well as to transportation departments in a dozen states. Because the HERE platform combines current and historical data, it allows officials to make better long-term plans. By analyzing this data, they can spot trends that help them predict the next traffic hot spots and know just where they need to add capacity to keep up with future demand.
City engineers also use the data to examine accident patterns so that they can zero in on areas that need a safety redesign. If cities also embed sensors in traffic lights and pavements, they can reduce congestion and send crews to fix road problems before they turn into hazards.
Keeping drivers in the loop
Real-time traffic data can also be sent to drivers, helping them optimize routes and avoid congestion, accidents, and construction delays. HERE Traffic services incorporate data from more than a trillion sensor points and crunches it with historical and seasonal information to give drivers reliable estimated arrival times for trips planned up to 12 hours in advance.
And during the trip, alerts warn the driver of accidents and provide instructions for rerouting; the data can even tell drivers in real-time which lane of freeway is the least congested.
Collecting and sharing traffic data helps cities ease congestion - and the driver frustration that accompanies it. By 2025, cities that deploy smart-mobility applications have the potential to cut commuting time by an average of 15% - 20%, according to a McKinsey study. In Washington, DC, which ranks highest in average commute time in the US, that could free the average commuter from their car for an extra 52 hours every year.
Sharing data can also alleviate that bane of city drivers everywhere: finding a parking space. US drivers spend an average of 17 hours a year hunting for parking.
Cities can ease their frustration by mounting sensors on roads and parking lots and cameras on street lights. The information they collect shows when spaces become available, and drivers can be directed through an app to the nearest available spot. A 2014 San Francisco study found that real-time data reduced parking search time by 43%.
A spirit of innovation
Examining traffic data can not only make roads safer and easier to navigate - it can pave the way for new solutions that extend beyond the automobile and help bring communities together.
"A transportation system can make people feel isolated or it can contribute to a sense of happiness and well-being," says Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. "Communities ought to have a variety of choices."
Under Reynolds, the city has invested in a pilot program to transform streets with less vehicle traffic into community spaces where residents in areas that lack parks and playgrounds can gather to have fun.
On designated days, these roads become "play streets" where adults come to play bingo, children snap together giant plastic shapes to form seesaws and lounge chairs, and teens navigate obstacles on a skateboard course.
"A street should be able to change its shape and function over the course of a day," says Reynolds, who got the inspiration for the program after visiting Europe, where play streets are becoming popular.
She envisions a time when more people will drive less and use public transit more, freeing up streets that aren't on major transit routes for other community-defined purposes. "We're on the verge of the next big disruption in transportation and mobility. Until now we've sat in our silos and haven't unlocked innovation. We can manage the whole ecosystem more intelligently and for the good of everyone."
Making a transportation connection
As the smart city movement spreads, urban transit systems may eventually connect data from all modes of transportation and share it with citizens. A single app could provide accurate arrival times throughout the city for both drivers and passengers awaiting buses and trains.
The app would alert people in real time to delays and suggest a new route - or a different mode of transportation altogether. As individuals make more efficient choices, their cumulative actions will add up to smoother traffic flows, fewer accidents, less congestion, and cleaner air.
The technology to do all this is available now. Now it's up to city leaders to break out of their silos and take advantage of it.
Innovation in location technology is rapidly creating a New Reality for governments and businesses around the world. Find out more about how location technology from HERE is enabling this New Reality.
Watch the video below with Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, to learn more.