Smart solutions to end city traffic gridlock

With the urgent need to ease congestion and decarbonise travel networks, Chris Milton investigates sustainable ways of getting cities and people moving again

The biggest problem facing transport in cities is capacity. Road systems envisioned and built for a different transport mix are creaking under the strain of cars.

Department of Transport figures show that more than 60 per cent of all commutes are undertaken by car, with 85 per cent of these journeys having just one person in the vehicle.

As Paul Campion, industry executive for transport at IBM UK, explains: “Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t pour enough concrete or bend enough steel to accommodate people. We have to create more capacity across all modes.” The modes he refers to are the different ways by which people travel. Cars are one, but as their use has increased, others such as walking, cycling, buses, waterways, rail and trams have been pushed to the sidelines.

The key to freeing traffic in cities is, therefore, to ensure capacity exists across all forms of transport to allow people to travel as they please within an integrated and sustainable network. The first step in achieving this is to reduce the number of one-occupant cars on the roads. Several websites exist to help people share journeys and many businesses, such as BT Group, RWE nPower and BAA Heathrow, operate car-sharing schemes for employees.

Car clubs are a new trend in urban driving. They allow vehicles to be hired for short periods from parking spots around a city in a solution which provides mobility while reducing incoming traffic. This approach has proved so successful in Europe that Ford and Mercedes Benz have launched their own services.

More than 30 per cent of all urban traffic is caused by people searching for a parking space, according to IBM, so another mitigating solution is smart parking. This uses sensors to detect when a space is free and relays that information to a person’s smartphone. The person can then pay for the space using their phone, drive to it and park.

Blending different forms of travel together into a seamless transport solution is possibly the greatest challenge of all

Smart parking has recently undergone its first European trial in London at Westminster, which is looking to roll it out to manage both parking spaces and delivery bays.

There are also plans to allow people to reserve special parking spaces next to electric-vehicle (EV) charging points. These are spreading across Europe quickly, Estonia being the latest country to launch a network, and the UK will have more than 7,000 charging points by the end of 2013.

Many are concentrated in urban areas and EVs are seen as an integral part of efforts to promote healthier urban lifestyles through reducing air pollution while decarbonising the transport system.

Reducing traffic on the roads is only part of the solution, however. In many places, roads form barriers which prevent other modes of transport from accessing an area. Changing this by enhancing bikeability and walkability of cities will also increase transport capacity, according to David Carter, a market director for transportation specialists MVA Consultancy.

He uses the Nottingham ring road as a prime example of how introducing speed bumps, replacing underpasses with raised crossings and planting trees can improve accessibility and make the environment more attractive. “This has made it more permeable,” he says, “which makes the town centre seem bigger, generates connectivity and increases footfall for the local economy.”

The experience is echoed by Bristol, which has used its status as a Cycling City to significantly increase numbers of commuters both walking and biking.

Blending the different forms of travel together into a seamless transport solution is possibly the greatest challenge of all. There are lots of travel planning services available, but many of them, according to Mr Campion, do little more than relay existing timetable information. He envisages a new form of service enabling people to pick and alter their journey depending on prevailing transport conditions, whether they want to cycle one day, go the fastest way the next or take the most environmentally friendly route.

These solutions will rely heavily upon the supporting traffic management system and its ability to monitor people’s movements in real time. This is already possible through smartphones, digital CCTV cameras and a new breed of cars which exchange data with their surrounding area, so very little new infrastructure will need to be installed.

Critically, such traffic management systems will not only be able to monitor current usage, but also predict where spikes may be about to happen, advising people to make different transport choices before congestion occurs.

These systems could also see where user preferences are not being met, enabling planners to introduce extra capacity proactively and giving people the opportunity to travel in the way which is best for them, best for the environment and best for the transport infrastructure.

The final part of creating this vision of a sustainable and seamless transport system is changing people’s behaviour. A large part of this relies upon businesses encouraging and embedding changes to their transport use within everyday activities.

Many recognise this and are introducing incentive schemes. One example is PHA Media in London, whose staff collect points for walking to work, hand-delivering letters and using bicycle couriers. Anyone with a consistently high score over 12 months receives a free annual Barclays cycle pass. “People are now more in tune with the transport available,” says Cameron Hall, account manager at PHA Media. “There is a higher level of consciousness and staff think before they act.”

So the unfolding network of EV charging points and drive towards reducing pollution is only the start of sustainable transport in cities of the future. Road networks will be able to absorb increasing levels of traffic by changes in use, while technology will ensure the network is as flexible as possible in enabling people to choose travel options.

Many of the solutions already exist and are either in place or in the process of being rolled out. Now it is just a question of changing people’s habits, so they are able to maximise the healthier, quicker and more sustainable options available to them.