Why Does Traffic Happen and How It’ll Be Solved

Before we explore the theoretical solutions to traffic congestion, let’s go over why solving traffic is so important and see why it happens in the first place.

Why Solving Traffic is Important

Urban mobility (or inner-city transportation) is usually one of the most strategic aspects of a nation/society. It’s a matter of national security if your city’s main arteries are blocked for several hours on daily basis. Think of a city as an organism with the major highways, the secondary highways, and the inner-city streets as the arteries and veins. If any of the blood vessels in an organism are blocked for several hours a day, this usually means paralysis or death. How does that translate to a city? A major loss in resources, economy, and time without mentioning the increased pollution and environmental footprint.

In short, traffic is a symptom of a failed system.

Why Does Traffic Happen

Out of the numerous reasons that cause traffic congestion, the below 3 make up most of the problem, and thus would have the biggest impact on traffic when addressed.

  1. The first reason traffic happens is because cars are driven by human monkeys that have a very short attention span and very poor coordination skills with other drivers. It’s mostly because of human drivers that we have traffic lights for example on intersections to help us coordinate. This video illustrates the problem beautifully.
  2. The second reason is high motorization rate. The motorization rate, or vehicles per capita, is the number of motor vehicles per 1,000 individuals. These cars are used only 4% of the time. Out of the 24 hours a day, cars are usually parked for 23, costing their owner money while costing the city significant public space that’s allocated for idle tons of steal instead of living humans.
  3. The third reason being that on average, 8 out of 10 cars in traffic have only the driver. This means that on a given rush hour, more than 85% of the seats circulating in traffic are empty. Just let that settle in.
Humans have a short attention span, coordinate poorly between each other, and thus cause a lot of phantom traffic

Human Monkeys → Autonomous Vehicles (Self-driving Cars)

Solving the first problem will require us to fully transition into self-driving autonomous vehicles which will take sometime especially on the regulatory side. Many people argue that technology is still far from getting there but that is becoming more arguable with every single day.

Machine learning, AI, IoT (internet of things), and mobile technologies are all accelerating the technology readiness curve at an exponential rate. Startups like Comma.ai for example are aiming to ship a kit by 2017 that you can mount to your car which in turn will give your car self-driving capabilities. Tesla already rolled out its Autopilot system, Uber already rolled out self-driving cars (with drivers baby sitting them) in Pittsburg, and many startups and big incumbents alike are taking a swing at it.

While technology is making huge leaps towards self-driving cars, ethical dilemmas on the decisions a self-driving car has to make in the case of an inevitable accident will be the biggest delayer of the mass rollout/adoption. For example should a self-driving car save you as its passenger or should it sacrifice you to minimize harm by saving others around you? This is the biggest challenge we humans (programmers, entrepreneurs and policy makers) will have to overcome first. But regardless of how such challenges will be handled, self-driving cars are coming and I’m pretty sure that my son who was born 11 months ago will NEVER have to learn how to drive a car.

In a self driving future, autonomous vehicles will make by far less accidents (and thus less car fatality), will require no traffic lights (because they already can coordinate with each other through the cloud), and thus will most likely reduce traffic significantly. It is becoming more likely that human driving will be restricted to a limited number of districts.

High Motorization Rate → Car Sharing

Some individuals will always prefer the comfort and convenience of driving a car when it comes to urban mobility. Car manufacturers are in the business of mobility (that is moving people from point A to point B). Today most of car OEMs are hardware providers (selling cars), while a smart group of them are already shifting towards becoming service providers by renting their own fleets by the minute.

This is called Car Sharing where for example 1,000 cars are made available for rental by the minute. Car sharing systems such as BMW’s DriveNow (known as ReachNow in the US) and Daimler’s Car2Go are 2 of the best solutions to this problem, especially since they run in what’s called a one-way car-sharing system (or floating system).

Here’s how they work: by using your smartphone, the DriveNow app for example shows you the location of the nearest available BMW or Mini Cooper car. You can then simply reserve the car, walk towards it, unlock it with your phone, and drive away. You’ll then be charged around 30 cents/minute which covers the price of gas, parking, insurance and the car itself. Once you get out of the car, your credit card will be charged by only the minutes you’ve used the car. Now the car is available for someone else to use and you don’t have to worry about returning it.

Unlocking a BMW DriveNow car with your DriveNow App.

How does this system reduce motorization rate? It simply eliminates the need for car ownership by giving drivers access to vehicles. A study by the University of California, Berkley validated that for every Car2Go car that’s put in traffic, 11 car ownership vehicles are taken out. Check the full 26-pages study here.

The shift from ownership to access.

Car Occupancy → Peer-to-Peer Ride Sharing

While car sharing is accelerating the shift from ownership to access, ride sharing is considered by many industry experts to be the logical next step towards the future of urban mobility. Urban peer-to-peer ride sharing matches everyday commuting drivers (people like you and me) with passengers going in the same direction within the city.

This is very different from ride hailing (such as Uber and Lyft) for the simple reason that in ride hailing, the driver is making a living out of driving and is usually dispatched to the passenger’s location. In urban p2p ridesharing, drivers make back their driving expenses simply by picking up verified passengers going on their way, with minimal effort and detour.

Peer-to-peer ride sharing allows drivers to earn back their driving expenses and nothing more. The system is considered as a matching system and not a dispatching system, and passengers pay for only the ride’s cost, which is usually 70% cheaper than taxi.

This sounds extremely logical and simple to implement, but until today, there has been no successful example of an urban p2p ride sharing system. Hundreds if not thousands of startups have tried solving this problem but no one has succeeded yet, and the players include Uber with UberCommute in Chicago, Google with Waze and Waze Rider in Tel-Aviv & SF, Volt in Istanbul, and Lyft with Lyft Carpool in SF which shut down last month after 5 months of introduction.

Since the driver-passenger matching is very difficult in urban p2p ridesharing, the secret to cracking the nut in this category is supply. Demand for cheap rides is infinite, so the challenge here is how to keep supply (drivers) coming back every single day even if they didn’t match with passengers. Whoever solves this problem and scales it first would be the first to disrupt urban mobility in ways that we’ve never seen before.

What are you thoughts on traffic and the future of urban mobility? Please let me know in the comments and I’d love to chat more about it!