How creative tech solutions are improving traffic congestion.

By: Audrey Denis, strategy manager, Cubic Transportation Systems

For most people, sitting in traffic is a daily part of life and it can be some of the most frustrating moments of the day. A recent study from INRIX showed that the average American driver spent 36 hours stuck in traffic in 2021, which translates to $564 of time wasted. While encouraging folks to use public transportation to ease road congestion can help this problem, creative solutions are being deployed in cities across the U.S. so that drivers don’t need to give up their cars.

Cities like Seattle, Tacoma, San Francisco, and Reno have adopted intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technology to improve traffic flow. For instance, Minnesota’s Department of Transportation’s use of ITS spans the entire state via Cubic’s GRIDSMART technology.

GRIDSMART provides horizon-to-horizon computer vision tracking to actuate intersections and help solve complex problems such as adaptive traffic signal control as well as vulnerable road user protection and safety analytics. Minnesota’s DoT has seen great advantages in GRIDSMART’s detection capabilities as it captures data on vehicle counts and classifications, as well as identifying driver patterns to improve congestion and road safety.

Another recent ITS implementation can be seen in the extensive traffic signal and mobility modernization efforts underway at the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego). To address traffic congestion, UC San Diego invested nearly $2 million to implement adaptive traffic signal controls at 26 intersections along five miles of roadway surrounding the campus. The University, Linscott, Law, & Greenspan (LLG) Engineers and Cubic teamed up to make these upgrades, paving the way for San Diego’s smart city future with integrated transit. The three organizations are in the near-deployment stage for one of San Diego’s most extensive ITS projects to date.

We can also look at the Empire State for inspiration. New York is finding ways to alleviate the vehicular mayhem post-pandemic. One way is to introduce a congestion pricing program in which tolls will collect a fee from drivers entering certain sections of Manhattan, usually during peak hours. In this case, toll roads take on a dual purpose: to raise revenue and control traffic via sensors and detection tools. The upside is that fewer cars mean decreased air pollution. The downside is that residents and tourists may feel penalized for driving a vehicle or feel financially whipped by another fee.

The pricing program is currently a proposal under review, but if approved, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) could gain $15 billion in revenue. The money will be a critical source of funding for the MTA’s $51.5 billion capital campaign to update its aging transit infrastructure.

A top priority is to sway riders back to the trains and buses. The COVID-19 shutdown rocked ridership to historic lows, cutting deep financial losses to the MTA. The agency estimates it lost $125 million per week due to the pandemic in 2020. The average subway ridership on a weekday dropped to 2 million in 2020 from 5.49 million in 2019. The MTA announced that it reached 2.5 million riders on June 25–a milestone since the pandemic. While the agency can rejoice over this victory, it still must find ways to incentivize riders or continue facing massive revenue losses.

What is promising is the launch of the MTA’s contactless fare payment program, OMNY, across approximately 5,000 buses and 472 subway stations. Riders in New York can now create personalized transit accounts to see ride history, check balances and add money for fares. OMNY also allows riders to use credit and debit cards, as well as mobile devices, at the bus or turnstile as a method of payment.

Being stuck in traffic not only wastes our time and sanity, but also our money. Encouraging individuals to use public transportation instead of driving will be the key to solving this issue. While some congested cities may find relief implementing a congestion pricing program, this could potentially penalize low-income individuals, creating a more complex problem.

Due to our individualistic culture, Americans are also hesitant to give up the convenience a car provides and begin relying on public transportation like buses and subways. This means solutions like GRIDSMART, that utilize data and analytics to improve congestion and road safety, will be even more of a necessity when solving congestion issues in the future. The growing problem of road congestion in the U.S. won’t be solved overnight. However, with creative tech solutions like GRIDSMART, and a willingness from the public to shift to using more sustainable transportation methods, road congestion can be greatly reduced and hopefully become an issue of the past.