Traffic and How to Avoid Future 'Carmaggedons'

Los Angeles is a remarkable city for many reasons, but chief among them is its traffic. The average Angeleno spends more than three days of their lives in congestion. During peak times -- Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. -- the average trip can take commuters 71% longer than normal, according to one recent report.

Given the traffic conditions in Los Angeles, plans to close a section of one of the most congested freeways -- the I-405 -- for 53 hours this weekend has many people fearing a “carmageddon” or a “carpocalypse.” Officials predict the shutdown will be “an absolute nightmare.”

City and county officials are advising people to stay off the roads altogether during the closure, but that’s not an option for everyone. For those who need to get somewhere along the I-405 during those 53 hours, they’re going to need a better plan of attack than to just “stay the heck” away.

The current situation in L.A. may be extreme, but the reality of this kind of traffic isn’t. With population growth and more urbanization, these types of situations will become increasingly common, instead of the exceptions they are today. How can we minimize these kinds of issues?

Traffic is cost ineffective for everyone involved. As traffic increases, so does the pollution and the amount of money spent on gas and car maintenance. Cities and states have to spend more on road repairs and people are less productive. Commuters can’t just avoid the “rush hour” because the rush hour in most major cities has grown into a four hour period of heavy congestion on either end of a weekday. Adding capacity is time consuming and costly.

Imagine reducing a thirty minute commute to a twenty minute commute. It may only be ten minutes, but to the driver, those ten minutes are incredibly precious.

Once upon a time, the best way to get a traffic report was to send someone in a helicopter to fly over the freeways and give real-time reports via radio. When car phones became more common, people could call in radio stations with traffic reports. Today we have innumerable road sensors and cameras on the ground that automatically upload data so information can be shared and analyzed in nearly real-time. A huge percentage of Americans have access to a GPS system, either on their phones or as a stand alone device in their cars. These devices can upload traffic data based on the speed at which their cars are moving, and it’s a far more accurate measure of traffic speed than anecdotal evidence from people calling in with information.

The information is also collected in near real-time, which is vital in fighting traffic. Once data is five to seven minutes old, it’s too late to make any changes that will reduce congestion. Once a commuter is stuck in gridlock, it’s too late to find an alternate route.

With the availability of this data, network operators -- think your city or state’s departments of transportation-- can make more intelligent decisions about traffic flow, such as how to adjust the timing of traffic lights; when to change messages on digital billboards; how to time meter ramps and so on. Using predictive software, cities can forecast traffic buildup in specific locations up to sixty minutes in advance and offer alternative routes to commuters. In one California pilot, for example, commuters can sign up to receive customized traffic reports via text messages or email before they begin their trip. They can find an alternative course before they even leave their house.

Historical data collected over the years can help network operators identify traffic flow patterns before they become major problems. The upshot is that commuters will be better informed and can make smarter decisions about when and how to get somewhere given the traffic forecast.

Ultimately, this information should be shared by various agencies. As it stands now, the highway patrol often has access to real-time information about accidents, but that information isn’t shared with other agencies in real-time. If there’s a mechanical problem with a train and traffic builds up around a certain intersection as a result, that’s going to be of interest not just to people who take the train,but to police who may have to direct traffic.

In the current economic climate, data analytics is one of the most cost effective ways cities and counties can reduce traffic without massive capital investments. In most cases, the information is already out there, it’s just a matter of recognizing its value, putting it to smarter use and minimizing the amount of time we spend in traffic.

See more in the video below: