Gridlock unlocked: lessons from the world to beat road congestion
Traffic jams cost the world’s economies billions of dollars every year. These cities are exploring new ideas to help traffic flow more smoothly.
No one likes being stuck in traffic. Yet every day, all around the world, millions of us tap the brakes, sigh, and settle into the bumper-to-bumper.
In recently-released research, London again topped the list of the world’s most congested cities, with residents spending an average 156 hours a year each staring at the back of the car in front, and this is after the introduction of the famous London congestion charge, which has its 20th anniversary this week.
In 2002, “the average time taken to drive across the city was slower than 100 years earlier – before the car was invented,” says Kimberly Nicholas, a sustainability scientist at Lund University.
The mayor of London, inspired by Singapore, started charging people to drive in the most congested part of the city.
Traffic in the centre dropped significantly and it started flowing better than it had in years. “Milan, Stockholm and Gothenburg have since introduced their own version of the charge,” she says.
In research undertaken with Paula Kuss, Professor Nicholas found that of a range of potential measures, congestion charges were the most effective at reducing car numbers in the centre of examined European cities.
“Removing parking spots and replacing them with bicycle and pedestrian lanes was the second most effective intervention,” she says.
Similarly, Singapore’s congestion charge has seen the city have some of the smoothest flowing traffic in Asia.
Walter Edgar Theseira, an associate professor of economics at Singapore University of Social Sciences says that over the past 45 years Singapore has experimented with various discouragements to car use. “Singapore today focuses on a ‘car-lite’ strategy of improving public transport to reduce the need to own and use a car as much as possible.”
Theseira believes the key to the success of the congestion charge in those cities was that it was implemented with a ‘carrot and stick’ approach. The charge for driving in the city was offset by inducements towards other means of transport.
It’s a lesson Jakarta could learn, as the famously jammed Indonesian capital works towards implementing its own congestion charge in 2024. “The public is generally sceptical about such a policy, and significant opposition arises particularly among car users,” says Sugiarto, a professor in transport planning and policy at Universitas Syiah Kuala.
“Emphasising the problem of cars and their negative effects on the air and environment of Jakarta could be key to winning over the doubters,” he says.
Carrot and stick was also key to congestion busting in Israel. Galit Cohen Blankshtain, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and colleagues, found the ‘carrot’ of a clear run in a expressway lane was enough to get people car-pooling once the infrastructure was put in place to support it. If people could not find enough colleagues to pack into their car, the ‘stick’ alternatives were to sit in the congested lanes, or pay a fee to drive in the fast lane.
“The project, which began with a suspicious public and media, became a success story and is inspiring further high occupancy toll lane plans across Tel-Aviv,” she says.
Ideas for unlocking gridlock can come from unexpected quarters. Tanya Latty, an entomologist from the University of Sydney, says that ants may influence traffic technology, particularly as more of us adopt self-driving cars. “Self-driving cars can communicate with each other to find the best route and avoid congestion, similar to ants using chemical signals to communicate and navigate their trail systems,” she says.
However it’s worth remembering that not all congestion-busting ideas pan out.
“Several studies from both developed and developing countries have shown ride-hailing [such as Uber, Lyft, Didi and Ola] likely increases traffic congestion,” says Alejandro Tirachini an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Twente and Universidad de Chile.
More work needs to examine the phenomenon, but it seems that “ride-hailing trips replace trips previously made by public transport and because there is also a sizeable addition of “empty kilometres” (without passengers), when drivers move from the drop-off point to the next pick-up location.”
Cars are an unquestioned part of our modern cities. But they get a free ride in ways that no other form of transport does. The impacts of congestion — time lost, pollution, stress, injuries, fossil fuel wastage, use of public open space — are absorbed by our various government purses. The research into how to beat traffic congestion is deep, long, wide and conclusive. The primary obstacle to applying these research findings and getting traffic moving is not inconsiderable: that of convincing the public that something must be done.
Editors Note: In the story “Gridlock unlocked” sent at: 14/02/2023 09:59.
This is a corrected repeat.