7 Smart City Solutions to Reduce Traffic Congestion

Article Published by Geotab
Author: Maria Sotra, Vice President Marketing

Parking lots. That’s what many freeways and inner-city roads have become, even in areas that have worked tirelessly to promote public transit, carpooling, and other ways to get around that can reduce traffic congestion. And while many of these ideas work, for decades they were rarely used or taken advantage of by the masses. Complaints of services would often include words like “inconvenient” — words painful to any city planner’s ears.

California. The state with some of the worst traffic-ridden freeways in all of the U.S. The good news? You often have good weather while stuck in traffic. The bad news? You’re stuck in traffic. According to the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, traffic on major San Francisco-area freeways has increased by 80% just since 2010. California is just one example.

Minnesota is seeing similar statistics with the Twin Cities expecting roadways to be jammed 30% of the time in the next 10 years. Plus, more and more major tech companies are taking their headquarters out of the suburbs and into cities to give their employees an urban lifestyle. The sudden growth in these cities, however, has turned the “traffic headache” into the “traffic migraine.”

Although it seems impossible, technology can help. We’re talking about a future of networked systems sharing rich data about our roads and pedestrians, giving way to smart cities.

But this is already happening now.

For example, cities can use Geotab’s aggregated data from connected vehicles to automatically identify potholes and other poor road conditions. The data can be integrated with government management so that public works or maintenance workers can automate dispatching and work orders.

Urban Analytics: The Building Blocks of Smart Cities Geotab white paper

Cities Turn to IoT to Help Solve Top Challenges

Some have even reported that cities around the world are likely to spend up to $41 trillion in smart city tech by 2020. This is why one of the most important factors in developing a smart city is making sure these Internet of Things (IoT) systems get implemented in an integrated fashion.

Every piece of technology must work and communicate together so that city leaders can use the data to make lives better. Because that last part is really what IoT aims to accomplish, like making that word “inconvenient” become obsolete in the world of public transit.

The Smart City Council says that a: “Smart city uses information and communications technology (ICT) to enhance its livability, workability and sustainability. It collects information about itself using sensors, devices or other systems, and sends the data to an analytics system to understand what’s happening now and what’s likely to happen next.”

In comes the not-lost hope. According to a 2017 survey of government officials in the U.S. at the federal, state, and local levels, 75% of respondents said they have a more positive view on IoT than they did two years ago, and as of 2016, 25% reported their city had at least one type of smart city tech getting tested in a pilot program. The three areas identified as some of the most immediate sectors to see IoT investments are energy management, public safety, and transportation.

Let’s Get Geeky

So what is a “smart city” technology? Well, that’s the cool (read: geeky) part of IoT. The possibilities are as endless as what we can think of and program. Yes, there are challenges like funding and having the right, skilled workforce that can plan, implement, maintain, and analyze a smart city network. But we’ll save that for a more serious post.

For now, let’s take a look at some of the neat things happening in cities that are addressing the real reason you’re reading this blog: dealing with all those parking lots also called roads.

Two important terms to know:

  • Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology is when one vehicle is able to communicate to another vehicle nearby — in front, behind, etc. It’s the core of autonomous driving technology, where sensors can detect what’s going on around the vehicle and additional technology can share that data with other vehicles on the road.
  • Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology is similar, in that the vehicle is able to send and receive information. In V2I, the infrastructure can include physical things such as traffic signals and weather alert systems. The vehicle can send data out while simultaneously the infrastructure can send important data back.

RelatedConnected Car Technology: How Cars Talk to Each Other

Seven Ways to Reduce Traffic Congestion with Smart City Tech

1. Adaptive Traffic Signals
Traffic signals are getting smarter through V2I technology. The city of Columbus, Ohio, for example, is using data its gathering from government fleet vehicles as part of other smart city pilot programs to also improve the timing of traffic signals. By getting a better idea of traffic flow and how long a vehicle idles at stop lights, the city can better modify traffic signal timing with the changes in traffic throughout the day.

traffic stopped at red light

2. V2I Smart Corridors
Adaptive traffic signals are one piece to some smart corridors. Smart corridors can address traffic congested roads as well as hazardous areas, such as one major highway in Wyoming used heavily for freight transportation in addition to regular passenger cars.

Using V2I technology, the state is implementing a pilot project that would send safety-related weather and accident alerts to drivers volunteering for the program. To do this, 75 short-range communications units are being installed along the highway that can communicate with the other units and the vehicles that have devices installed. Officials expect a significant effect on safety and even the economy since the state will likely spend less energy  on accident clean-up and highway closures to deal with tractor-trailer blow-overs.

In Atlanta, a 2.3-mile smart corridor that just opened in September is expected to reduce travel times on the route by 25%. With adaptive traffic signal technology, connected video cameras and more, the city hopes it can serve as a real-world testing grounds for smart corridor technology.

3. Autonomous Vehicle Technology
While autonomous vehicles for the passenger car won’t necessarily decrease the number of cars on the road, with fewer accidents and driver-caused traffic, autonomous vehicles are likely to reduce congestion.

Platooning is one example of an autonomous vehicle technology. If all roads on the vehicle had autonomous technology, vehicles would be able to speed up and slow down, and merge onto and off freeways without human direction, creating a much smoother driving pattern. Platooning is a first-step toward self-driving cars since it requires vehicles on a freeway to communicate with each other about speed and conditions, allowing the vehicles to travel consistently. It would eliminate human error that causes issues like “phantom traffic,” which is caused by the ripple effect of a driver braking in the middle of a freeway.

What will also help with traffic congestion by actually reducing the number of passenger vehicles on the road is further bolstering public transit with more first- and last-mile solutions. For example, companies like Lyft and Uber are looking at how autonomous vehicles could make their services a more viable service in conjunction with public transit.

4. Real-Time Traffic Feedback
This affects use of public transit, such as a new project in Kansas that has a free streetcar carrying up to 6,200 passengers a day in a major business district. The success of the program is largely contributed to all the real-time traffic feedback — not just for where exactly the streetcar is at all times but also the traffic around the downtown area, kiosks that show available parking spaces, etc. (It also helps with ridership that the streetcar has free Wi-Fi.) This 2.2-mile “smart district” corridor even has street lights that dim when there are no pedestrians walking beneath.

Real-time traffic feedback also makes concepts like “congestion pricing” a little easier to sell to consumers who’re used to using roads for free. Instead of the typical toll for express lanes, this would change the pricing structure based on peak traffic times and for high-occupancy or exempt vehicles, with the goal of discouraging single-passenger drivers to be on the road at peak travel times.

5. Tracking Pedestrian Traffic
Addressing traffic congestion is also about understanding pedestrian traffic. In Las Vegas, for example, the city is using V2I technology to not only track how many vehicles go through a given intersection at different times but how many pedestrians are crossing streets — and even jaywalking — so the city can reroute vehicle traffic at times of high pedestrian traffic, and so on. The city can also get alerts when a pedestrian is in a roadway when the light is about to change so they can delay the light if needed, increasing the safety of the streets as well.

In Los Angeles, they’re stepping even further back on how they’re looking at pedestrian traffic. They’re taking vehicle and pedestrian traffic data and making it open to the public, which means housing authorities and residential developers can better pinpoint commutes, and where housing should be developed to help reduce traffic coming into already congested neighborhoods.

los angeles skyline smart city solution to reduce traffic congestion

6. Car Sharing and Multi-modal Solutions
Reports are not yet consistent on whether or not car sharing and ride hailing apps actually alleviate congestion (the most recent says they’re pulling from transit ridership). But either way, they provide alternative options. City planners and those in the public transit industry see it as an issue of connectivity — making it easy to grab a car through a private company’s app to head to a public transit station. Though not-yet implemented, winner of the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, Columbus, Ohio, plans to invest into a trip planning app that would integrate its multiple modes of transportation and would also establish a single, streamlined payment system. Better connecting the modes of alternative transportation would encourage more urbanites to forego a car altogether.

7. Replacing Vehicles with Drones
There are some tasks done by city governments like checking water meters and utility lines that don’t necessarily need to be done by vehicle. With the emergence of drone technology, more and more utilities and public energy authorities are using drones to do these regular tasks instead of sending out field workers in a bucket truck. Los Angeles is even looking into drone technology to do things like firefighting.

And of course companies are looking at drone technology to do inner-city tasks too, such as Amazon’s drone pilot program for short-distance deliveries. President Donald Trump actually just signed an executive memorandum to make it a little easier for these types of companies to test drones in cities.

Flying Cars Are Likely Next

While this list didn’t include flying cars, have no fear, companies are looking into it and some even have prototypes.

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