Science and Technology

Tackling road congestion in a collaborative and connected world

freeway traffic
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

In the first of a series of six articles, Professor David Hensher, Director of the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at The University of Sydney, outlines the opportunities, and the challenges, of new transport technologies and business models in the fight against traffic congestion.

Traffic congestion continues to be the bane of many metropolitan areas and has exercised the minds of experts for at least the last 60 years. With the advent of smart (intelligent) mobility, aligned with digital disruption and future connected and collaborative transport including extensions to autonomous vehicles, the question of whether we have a new window of opportunity to tame congestion is now high on the list of possibilities.

It is however very unclear what the future will look like in respect of congestion on the roads, especially if we rely on ‘smart’ technology and continue to reject reform of road user charging and new opportunities to fund the sharing model.

Smart cities and congestion

The growing interest in smart1 cities and the role of digital-based technology in driving new agendas for how our cities will perform in the near and far future has opened up commentary on what this might mean for curbing road traffic congestion.

Will, for example, autonomous vehicles (at levels 3 and 4 in particular2) contribute to reducing if not eliminating or better manage traffic congestion, and when might this occur? How might a move to a sharing culture with less private car ownership affect levels of congestion even without autonomous cars? What will all this mean for future investment in infrastructure, especially major highways, and might the design of such roads change in recognition of the safety outcomes associated with computer-controlled cars that can travel in platoons? Will lanes be narrower3, with possibly autonomous intersection management?

Under the sharing model, car-based movements might start to take on the feel of conventional bus public transport, albeit with smaller vehicles, offering improved public transport-like services that can stretch throughout suburbia under a point to point initiative, or as a first and last mile (almost seamless) connection with conventional linehaul high capacity public transport.

These speculative assertions are eroding daily as we come to grips with the real possibilities of technology-enhanced mobility opportunities, driverless or otherwise. What this will mean for the changing landscape of service provision under the adage ‘the customer comes first’, and the implications for the governance of cities, are rapidly becoming priority agenda items.

Themes to explore

With a focus on what this might mean for future levels of traffic congestion, these six articles look closely at a number of themes that might throw up clues as to the implications for future congestion, and what conditions are likely to have to be in place to support taming traffic congestion.

I have selected four themes:

In one sense the arguments presented in these articles are speculative (although almost daily we acquire further factual evidence); but then so is the future. To recognise that the digitally disrupted future and its interface with autonomous vehicle technology may have significant downsides, once we start to understand behavioural response, must be given a greater focus.

MaaS is a must

Importantly, we need to be clear from the outset that mobility as a service (MaaS), the popular interpretation of future collaborative and connected mobility services, must be considered under both the presence and absence of autonomous vehicles as well as the extent to which we can change society to adopt a sharing culture. These are the critical elements that have to be in place or not in judging the opportunity to change the way transport services are provided and the success of any initiatives (see also Cavoli et al. 2017 for an excellent review of the literature and Cohen et al. 2017).

These articles are as much about uncertain futures as they are about identifying research themes that will need to be given great attention if we are to gain greater confidence in the likely impact that these exciting initiatives might have on levels of congestion.

Without action, congestion is set to stay

There is one outcome that I feel reasonably confident about however – congestion is likely to become less random and somewhat more predictable, but it is unlikely to disappear. Much of the criticism of historical and current traffic congestion is related to its great variability and uncertainty every time one travels, and the growing incidence of accidents and breakdowns as a contributing influence.

Footnotes

1. See Lyons (2017) for a review and critique of the meaning and value of the word ‘smart’.

2. A Level 3 autonomous system is capable of monitoring the driving environment around them, allowing vehicles to make decisions themselves. Cars with on board computers that can handle tasks like indicating, braking and steering at the same time are classed as Level 4 systems. A Level 4 car is officially driverless in certain environments and can drive safely on its own even if a driver chooses not to intervene when asked. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomous_car

3. Although this may require no lane access by heavy vehicles

Author: Professor David Hensher

Professor David Hensher is Founding Director of the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at The University of Sydney. Among his many recognitions and achievements, David is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences, and the recipient of the 2009 International Association of Travel Behaviour Research (IATBR) Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition for his long-standing and exceptional contribution to IATBR as well as to the wider travel behaviour community. David has published over 600 papers in leading international transport and economics journals, as well as 16 books.

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