As incomes rise, so do personal travel miles. Ironically, the increase in congestion caused by more cars and more travel could weaken economic growth if people and goods can't move efficiently.
Sharing transportation innovations that accommodate economic and social transportation needs but also mitigate the issues of stress, air quality and lost productivity was the goal of business leaders, scholars, and government policy makers gathered at a June 8-9 MIT conference on "Traffic Congestion: A Global Perspective."
Ford Motor Co., the symposium's corporate sponsor, takes traffic congestion seriously because customers do. "Survey after survey shows us one of the things today's consumers value most is time, and time spent on congested highways is time that could have been better spent with families and friends," said Neil W. Ressler, Ford's vice president of research and its vehicle technology and chief technical officer.
Mr. Ressler hailed innovations in both technology and in policy aimed at reducing congestion. Applications of information technology, such as dynamic traffic information delivered to cars en route, help drivers avoid the most congested areas. Policy innovations, such as the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce's concentration on attracting new business that can utilize telecommuting, encourage economic growth with minimal traffic increases.
Although the average US work commute is about 22 minutes, an acceptable time to most consumers, congestion is a growing global concern for governments and individuals. In many American cities, congestion is a dawn-to-dusk phenomenon no longer confined to rush hour. And by 2010, another 54 million American teenagers will reach driving age.
Many European cities report city-center speeds of under 10 kilometers per hour at midday and slower during the rush. Developing countries are stymied too. Drivers in Bangkok spend the equivalent of 44 days a year in gridlock, costing the local economy hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity.
Speakers at the traffic congestion conference noted that public transit (which usually doubles trip time compared to private cars) and rail, which is at full freight capacity in the United States, cannot solve the congestion problem. In fact, worldwide motorization -- the increase in car ownership -- has benefits including new employment, increased foreign trade, regional development, and increased personal mobility for social, educational, and economic opportunities.
The conference was sponsored by the Cooperative Mobility Program (CMP) at the MIT Center for Technology, Policy, and Industrial Development and by the Industrial Liaison Program.
Ken Orski, founder of Urban Mobility Corp. and editor of CMP's global roundup of transportation innovations, International Mobility Observatory: Window on the World of Transportation Innovation, offered two promising strategies to increase efficient use of existing roadways: value road pricing and Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS).
Resistance is high to road pricing schemes such as higher tolls during rush hours that penalize drivers and that don't offer choices. "Most road pricing plans have been abandoned because people rightly perceive this as a penalty for driving, which often people can't control," Mr. Orski said. "Value pricing, which offers a guaranteed premium level of service, is generally accepted." California's privately funded SR91 express lanes are a value pricing success story: drivers can choose to pay for faster, congestion-free travel or stick to free, general purpose highways.
Transportation's new frontier is intelligent transportation systems that apply advanced computer, electronics, communication and information technologies to managing vehicular traffic and transit, Mr. Orski said. Government-funded ITS projects in Austin, TX, and Singapore, for example, can collect tolls electronically, detect and respond to highway accidents, and provide real-time information about congestion to drivers as well as advice on alternatives.
Public and private concerns have led to other efforts. For example, car-sharing organizations, which provide access to cars without ownership, are popular in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. Both US and European car companies are experimenting with leasing options that allow holders to pick up cars when needed or to access several types of vehicles for particular needs. Strategies such as carpooling, transit, flexible work arrangements, telecommuting, and high-occupancy vehicle lanes may also provide some relief.
Accommodating mobility needs while controlling and mitigating potential harmful side effects remains a tough problem. International Mobility Observatory predicts that automobiles will be the foundation for future mobility growth in both developing and developed countries.
As automobile ownership increases worldwide, studying congestion becomes critical, said Daniel Roos, CMP director and associate dean for engineering systems. "China and India have less than 10 cars per 1,000 people compared to the West with 300-500 cars per thousand. If we look at what has happened in the motorization process in the West, perhaps there are lessons we can adapt in socially responsible ways," he said.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 44, Number 1).