Looking back ten years or so, and reflecting on what has transpired over the intervening years, amazing changes have taken place – many we could not have imagined, in terms of changes in society, developments in technology and economic growth … including the growth in duration and extent of traffic congestion.
However, much of what we thought was emerging, in terms of transport agencies becoming system managers, and more active traffic managers, has developed much slower than expected.
The trend for road agencies to move from being an asset manager, focused on building and maintaining roads, to becoming managers of traffic on the road network, has been talked about for some time, but still has a long way to go.
To be successful in that transition, in my view, requires satisfaction of three critical success factors: Knowledge, Means, and Will.
What are the problems? What needs to be done? What can be done? How do we fix it?
Discussions on congestion are very topical in transport circles.
Inrix published a Global Traffic Scorecard listing the top 200 congested cities (based on their data on 38 countries and 1360 cities) – 10 of the top 25 in their sample are in the US, with the global #1 being Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles metro area, home to over 15 million people, takes the top spot once again in INRIX 2017 Traffic Scorecard. Drivers in Los Angeles spent 102 hours sitting in congestion.
London remains the UK’s most congested city and ranks second in Europe after Moscow and seventh in the world. Drivers in London spent an average of 71 hours in gridlock during peak hours.inrix.com
In Australia, the Australian Automobile Association in their 2018 Congestion Report stated:
Road performance across Australia is deteriorating. Average speed and reliability have declined and congestion is growing worse.AAA
So we know the problems!
And we have a toolbox of measures we can use to mitigate the impact of traffic congestion.
Improved management of incidents, roadwork zones, and special events, improved traffic control on motorways, better traveller information and pricing, are among the primary cost-effective strategies being promoted.
Using technology, such as adaptive traffic signals, can improve traffic flows by detecting real-time demand, continuously adjusting signal timings on intersections, corridors or area-wide basis. Variable speed limits, ramp metering and priority for public transport and emergency vehicles are also effective in managing congested traffic and ensuring safety during adverse conditions.
Improvements in detection and vehicle technologies and using algorithms will enable congestion and incidents to be rapidly identified and predicted, allowing pre-emptive action across the network, as well as provision of accurate and timely advice to road users.
Road network operators currently have limited relationships with road users, except in the cases of private toll roads. The emerging trend is a move to a more customer service orientation by providing access to real-time traffic information to make informed travel choices and consider options along their journey.
As the move to ‘user-pays’ increases, the focus on customer service must also increase, with increased attention to current and expected service levels, such as clearance times for incidents, waiting times at traffic signals and accuracy of information provided.
Active management of congested networks must become the normal operating process, to provide better real-time and predictive information and improve trip time reliability and advice on expected levels of service at different times, the risk of delays, route and mode options and potential costs and user charges, for different routes.
A market-driven approach provides a road network that drivers and freight operators are willing to pay for.
Do we have quality data, appropriate technology, adequate systems and structures in place and skills, capability and funding available?
Technology is readily available or can be developed for most of what needs to be done to mitigate congestion. Systems and structures are being progressively implemented to manage traffic on a regional basis and across jurisdictions.
In Australia as series of Austroads reports were published on traffic management tools and operational changes to improve the performance of the road network under congested conditions — so the technical aspects are being progressed.
A critical aspect of being able to utilise advanced operational strategies is having appropriate, quality data, to enable real-time adjustments and provide performance monitoring.
This is improving, but a much greater focus is needed on specific information to actively manage the road network. Sophisticated traffic management capability is also very limited and capacity needs to be actively developed.
The other challenge is obtaining funding – not easy with shrinking transport budgets and traditional evaluation processes which favour capital projects. Road user charging schemes are being seen as one new source of funding.
By will I mean is the prevailing organisational culture, management priorities, and political ‘will’ aligned, with adequate accountability structures in place to independently evaluate and report performance?
The biggest challenge to be faced is the will to actively manage traffic. The rhetoric is there, but with a few exceptions, not enough is happening (when measured in terms of resources devoted to congestion mitigation). Maybe the problems are not seen as severe enough yet.
The prevailing culture in most road agencies is still focussed on big projects, adding new infrastructure. Politicians prefer to be seen delivering large capital projects, rather than the more difficult to market, ’service improvements’.
Highways England is one example of a transport agency pushing the boundaries in this regard with live traffic information, smart motorways and Traffic Officers to aggressively manage incidents across their network.
The I95 Coalition in the US, covering the eastern seaboard, is a good example of multi-jurisdictional innovation, with directed research and development in transportation system management and operations.
Infrastructure Australia published a report in June 2018 titled Making Reform Happen: Using incentives to drive a new era of infrastructure reform calling for an introduction of road user charging to boost productivity, deliver benefits and improve the efficiency of Australia’s infrastructure.
The will to address traffic congestion is growing.
Are we there yet? Soon, real soon.