Can technology solve the congestion problem?

In the long run: hopefully.

In the short run: probably not.

At this point we are all pretty much just waiting for the autonomous cars to arrive and solve this traffic congestion mess we've gotten ourselves into. And if all our dreams come true they just might do that (insert the joke about what‘s worse than only 1 person per car). But even for all the efficiency they will bring the real breakthrough will probably have to come through fewer cars on the streets.

There have been technology breakthroughs before, cars replacing horse carriages is an example of that. And how’s this for irony: looking into London’s congestion problem, Transport for London (a local government body responsible for the transport system in Greater London) has measured some central buses travelling at an average speed of 3.8mph. That is slower than a horse and cart!

London introduced a congestion charge in 2003 with the aim of reducing the number of cars in the central London congestion zone and by doing so speeding up traffic. And it worked, but only for a while. Today, traffic in the congestion zone is actually slower than it was in 2003. There is no shortage of culprits but interestingly the private car is not one of them as the number of people who use their own car for commuting in London has been declining for years. Private hire vehicles on the streets (read Uber) have multiplied in numbers, as have the number of parcels delivered (read Amazon). Some point to road capacity getting limited as bike lanes get common.

So what can we do other than wait for self-driving cars and hope for the best? You can’t very well make the roads wider in central London (not to mention that more roads mean more traffic but not less congestion). And better traffic control is not always an option with London being pretty advanced in that field already (Transport for London believes in four years it will have exhausted all tools and tricks possible for a ‘more efficient’ flow of traffic).

Without a fully autonomous traffic system where there are no human drivers, irrational decisions and traffic lights the autonomous cars success in solving our congestion mess might just come down to the number of cars on the streets. Which is pretty much what we are dealing with today.

References:

  1. Micklethwaite, Jamie (2016, October). London traffic means buses are ‘slower than a horse and cart’. Retrieved October 30th, 2016, from http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/london-traffic-means-buses-are-slower-than-a-horse-and-cart-a3370316.html
  2. O’Sullivan, Feargus (2016, October). Traffic in London Is Still Out of Control. Now What? Retrieved October 30th, 2016, from http://www.citylab.com/cityfixer/2016/10/traffic-in-london-is-out-of-control-what-happened/505454/
  3. Sullivan, Conor (2016, October). Traffic congestion: is London running out of road? Retrieved October 30th, 2016, from https://www.ft.com/content/40774fc6-76b5-11e6-bf48-b372cdb1043a