The Trade-Off: Why we'll solve traffic jams with information, not more roads

Sooner or later, politicians will realize that roads are becoming a terrible way to deal with traffic.

This is top of mind, because Republican Bob McDonnell just won the Virginia governor's race in part by promising to build roads to unsnarl traffic in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where earthworms move faster than cars on the Beltway. "Traffic congestion is a quality-of-life, economic development, and environmental issue," McDonnell said during his campaign. He wants to spend $17.5 billion on roads.
Then on Tuesday, Canada released a study showing that traffic in Toronto costs the country $3 billion a year in lost productivity.

The problem is that while everybody hates traffic, nobody really wants roads, either. People want the means to get from one place to another. Ever since cars took over the world, roads have been a necessary evil -- but roads, and especially highways, offer a terrible trade-off. They are terrifically inconvenient: They cost billions of dollars, disrupt whole cities, and leave swaths of concrete where trees or neighborhoods used to be.

The quality of the experience of a new road for its users -- how good or fast it makes a car trip -- might make up for the inconvenience, but probably not for long. New roads have a habit of drawing new office buildings and housing developments -- and so lots and lots of new traffic, until the new roads are as bad as the old roads.

So roads aren't usually an easy enough solution, or a good enough solution, to make most people happy. We tolerate roads. Which means there must be better options.

And one is finally emerging. It involves looking at traffic as an information problem. Considering the cost and disruption of building a road, this might be the cheapest, easiest, most convenient solution to traffic.

iPhone users already got a simple early glimpse at how information can solve traffic problems. You can use an Apple (AAPL) iPhone's GPS and a Google (GOOG) Map to track your route. The Google Map app can overlay current traffic information. Roads where traffic is moving show up green; jams show up red. Drivers can see that the road they'll get to in 20 minutes is clogged and head for another route.

That information helps iPhone users avoid traffic, but for now, this generally only benefits iPhone users. If all drivers had that kind of information all the time, lots of people would take different routes, or delay a trip to avoid a traffic jam -- and that alone could lessen, or even eliminate, traffic jams.

But the problem with iPhone traffic information is that it only shows the traffic right now. It can't predict how the traffic will be when you get where you're going. If a road normally is clear at 4:30 p.m. but gets jammed with rush-hour traffic at 5 p.m., the iPhone-GPS-Google Maps combination doesn't understand that. Yet you don't want to look and see a "green" road at 4:30, only to hit traffic at 5.

A bunch of technologies are converging to make traffic technology more predictive. Cities such as Stockholm and Singapore are putting in sensors that can track every car on every road and feed that data back to IBM (IBM)-built computer systems. At first, that's for charging tolls on downtown roads at peak traffic times. But the data will let a city learn its traffic patterns. New kinds of analytic software from companies like TIBCO (TIBX) will be able to take those patterns and make predictions about the regular ebb and flow of traffic. Overlay other information about events in the city, and the system could also predict traffic during irregular events, like a major sporting event downtown.

A lot of cities, including New York and San Francisco, are having debates about installing these traffic-information systems. So far, the debates center on whether it's a good idea to charge tolls to use city streets. The better debate would be whether traffic information systems would be the most convenient way to help people get from one place to another.

Looking at IBM's emerging systems, the technology for predicting traffic is probably a few years away from being perfected. But at some point, spending a couple hundred million dollars on technology might be a better trade-off than pouring tens of billions into concrete.

Kevin Maney is the author of
Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don't (Broadway Books, 2009).

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