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Alternative Futures: Managing Congestion in Cities

DC Traffic Jams - Tech Startups

The amenities of urban life such as cultural events, bars and restaurants, museums and other entertainment are increasingly drawing people to cities and causing the biggest headache of metro life … traffic congestion. In fact, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) recently conducted a widely-publicized study showing that Washington, D.C. commuters spend an average of 82 hours per year in traffic — nearly twice the national average.

However, many criticize the study, titled The Urban Mobility Scorecard, for focusing almost exclusively on car traffic when the true story of congestion in cities is much more complex.

Inefficiency in moving people and goods throughout a metro area is one issue that touches on both competitiveness and environmental concerns. Gridlocked traffic leads to increased emissions and pollution as well as rising business costs. Unsurprisingly, a documented trend in decisions about business locations finds companies moving to more walkable and bikeable environments.

Considering the impact that commuting can have on the environment and the cost of subsidizing employee parking, some companies are incentivizing other means of transportation. Kenneth Irving, former CEO of Irving Oil, founded the startup Luum to offer a comprehensive parking and transportation management solution that allows employers and organizations to track and reward alternative commutes including biking and walking.

For cities, the crux of resolving nightmarish traffic is efficient planning, which means integrating the latest technology into transportation systems, as well as directing growth responsibly. In a recent CBC News article, the Chief Planner of the City of Toronto, Jennifer Keesmaat, explains how directing growth to main transit corridors helps:

“We see that as a critical part of mitigating congestion because if we’re directing our growth to places people don’t have access to by public transit, we’re simply adding more drivers to an already overloaded road system.”

The key to fixing an overloaded road system is not simply to add more transportation and more road capacity but to increase connectedness — which includes utilizing technology. Metro transit agencies can be a bit behind the latest technological advances due to budget and bureaucratic processes. Startups such as Chariot, Leap and Uber are offering innovative public transportation solutions, primarily in San Francisco.

However, cities are catching up. The same CBC News article cites The Direct Transfer blogger Jeff Wood, who points out that places such as Copenhagen and Vancouver are experimenting with various technologies from driverless trolleys and subway trains to systems for rapidly powering electric buses at route stops.

Those looking ahead to the not-so-distant future are contemplating the effects that driverless cars will have on urban mobility. The best case scenario is that driverless cars will be tied into a fully connected transportation network; the worst case scenario is that they will simply add to suburban sprawl and increase road demand.

City traffic would continue to worsen if people used driverless cars the same way they use regular cars today — individuals owning private vehicles and needing expensive storage infrastructure (i.e. parking garages). The status quo prioritizes automobiles over people and does not incentivize alternative transportation methods.

On the other hand, driverless cars could alleviate traffic congestion in a few ways. A Transportation Alternatives study finds that 64 percent of local cars driving around the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn were looking for parking spots. So, employing driverless cars as cabs could reduce the need for local parking, and robot cabs could retreat to the outskirts of cities for refueling and maintenance, thus decreasing the amount of cars on the road and overall congestion.

A Harvard study claims that parking takes up to one-third of ground-level space in some cities. An integrated transportation system that utilizes all available technologies will minimize the need for parking, improve land use and decrease traffic pollution. Reducing the number of hours spent sitting in traffic is only the beginning.

Emily Brown

Emily works in urban planning, helping cities to become more competitive. She was named as one of 40 under 40 economic developers, and has taken part in a successful Kickstarter…