Technology Tools for Transportation Networks

Forbes Magazine and Carol Colleta at CEOs for Cities picked up on a recent study by INRIX, a Seattle-area tech firm with surprising things to say about traffic congestion. The INRIX report documents an astonishing 36% drop in traffic congestion from 2007 to 2008, correlated to the economic slowdown. Remarkably this reduction took place with only 3% drop in traffic volumes. And while the numbers are telling indicators of how transportation systems work, the implications of bringing advanced data crunching to our transportation challenges may be even more important.

Colleta calls the INRIX findings a demonstration of the “tipping point” in traffic flow and argues that it makes a powerful case for variable road pricing as America pulls out of the economic downturn. She points out that “technology for implementing road pricing is already in hand and has been implemented around the country through ‘fast pass’ electronic tolling.” Indeed, congestion pricing has been used successfully in Europe since 2003, though it’s worth remembering the disinterest that greeted Charles Krauthammer’s similarly motivated call to keep gas at $4 / gallon as prices declined in mid-2008.

The Forbes article mentions a promising use of the INRIX technology that sidesteps the political question. Ford will begin offering cars this spring that use INRIX routing to direct drivers around congested areas, even predicting traffic jams before they have been reported, and ultimately enhancing the network function of existing roads. Widespread deployment of this technology may transform the American transportation system without pouring a single truckload of concrete.

Although there are limits to the ability of secondary roads and networks to soak up the IT enhanced traffic, that traffic is coming. CNU continues to advocate for federal investment in networks that allow drivers to bypass congestion or avoid using freeways altogether. As technology like the INRIX products mature, networks will become even more useful.

Ultimately these two issues are closely tied together. Don Shoup, known for his work on parking prices, has put forward a model for variable road pricing that links freeway congestion and network improvement, suggesting that the impetus for roadway charges should come from communities that host freeways. This solution takes pressure off roadbuilding budgets that simply can't take on all the proposed highway expansion projects, and creates a mechanism for funding investment in local street networks and other community improvements.


Real-time traffic feedback reveals benefits of connected network

You make an excellent observation, Moss, about how real-time traffic feedback from firms such as INRIX — in fact, the coming revolution in the availability of such real-time data — benefits those who use connected street networks, far more than those who use dendritic systems where a single wide arterial or highways is often designed to be the only viable route connecting destinations. Highly connected streets with small blocks — long a mainstay of traditional urban neighborhoods and reaffirmed in the LEED for Neighborhood Development green certification system — offer drivers myriad routes for avoiding congestion spots. Not only that, they offer people myriad options such as walking and taking transit for getting where they need to be without being chained to their cars.


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