Are we there yet?

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 highway agencies becoming road 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, focussed on building and maintaining roads, to becoming managers of traffic on the road network, has been talked about for some time, but in reality still has a long way to go.

To be successful in that transition, in my view, requires satisfaction of the critical success factors of Knowledge, Means and Will:

  • Knowledge – we can answer these questions: what are the problems? what needs to be done? what can be done? how do we fix it?
  • Means – do we have quality data, appropriate technology, adequate systems and structures in place and skills, capability and funding available?
  • Will – is the prevailing organisational culture, management priorities and political will aligned, with adequate accountability structures in place to independently evaluate and report performance?

Discussions on congestion are very topical in transport circles. In the UK the Stern and Eddington reports in 2006 indicated that delays and unreliability on the network have direct costs to people and businesses. In the US, the Texas Transportation Institute regularly reports on mobility and congestion and the Department of Transportation published the National Strategy to Reduce Congestion on America’s Transportation Network. In Australia, the Council of Australian Governments published their review of the trends, impacts and solutions for urban congestion in late 2006.

So governments know the problems. We also 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 freeways and high traffic arterials, better traveller information and pricing are among the primary strategies being promoted.

Advanced 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 transit and emergency vehicles can also be effective in managing congested traffic and ensuring safety during adverse conditions.

Improvements in detection and probe vehicle technologies and using algorithms, will enable likely congestion and incidents to be predicted, allowing pre-emptive action across the network (including multi-modal actions) and provision of accurate and timely advice to road users.

Road network operations currently have limited relationships with road users, except in the cases of priced roads. The emerging trend is a move to a customer service orientation. The customer will need access to real-time traffic information to make informed travel choices and consider options along their journey.

As ‘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, risk of delays, route and mode options and potentially 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.

Technology is available or can be readily 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.

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 the needed 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.

The biggest challenge to be faced is the will to actively manage traffic. The rhetoric is there, but with a few exceptions, not much is actually 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’.

The UK Highways Agency is one example of a road agency pushing the boundaries in this regard with their Active Traffic Management trials and rolling out Traffic Officers to aggressively manage incidents across their network. The I95 Coalition in the US is a good example of multi-jurisdictional innovation, with directed research and development – how well the new practices are implemented becomes the challenge, although Maryland and Florida are states leading the charge.

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.

The will to address traffic congestion is growing.

Are we there yet? Soon, real soon.

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