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Computer systems that can help to keep the traffic flowing
US journalist Doug Larson once joked: 'If all the cars in the United States were placed end to end, it would probably be Labor Day weekend.' With public-spending reductions across western economies cutting deeply into road-building budgets and the number of vehicles on the road continuing to increase, the other 363 days of the year look set to resemble Larson's vision of Labor Day some time soon.
The cost of road congestion, including wasted time and fuel, is estimated at around $100 billion in each of the USA and Europe. The Confederation of British Industry believes that the UK economy loses around $12 billion a year through congestion and that this figure will double in the next 15 years. In the August 2010 issue of the Financial Times, Cookson examines how intelligent traffic-management systems are being used to combat the problem.
The author points out that road-side cameras, electric circuits buried in the tarmac to detect passing vehicles, satellite-navigation systems and travellers' mobile-phone signals are generating growing quantities of 'real time' information to track and analyse traffic flow. Such systems can be linked to electronic message signs to control the speed of vehicles on major routes (the smooth flow of traffic is less likely to break down at 50 mph than 70 mph) and traffic signals to limit the number of vehicles joining from feeder roads.
The major challenge, Cookson reports, is to move beyond analysing current road conditions to predicting how they will change in the minutes and hours ahead. IBM is working on a system that will be able to forecast traffic conditions up to an hour in advance with 90% accuracy. If this information can be fed to drivers before they begin their journey, potential jams could perhaps be avoided.
Another way of using the roads that currently exist more efficiently is to encourage motorists to travel by bus. In Volume 12, Issue 8 of Logistics & Transport Focus, published in August 2010, Nash points out that, with buses taking one tenth of the road space per passenger of a private car and emitting one tenth of the carbon per urban passenger journeys, the case for improving urban bus-operating speeds is compelling.
The author looks at the issues that will influence the demand for bus travel in the UK in the next decade, highlighting in particular a report by public-transport consultancy TAS Partnership which claims that bus operators' profits are too low to meet the companies' financial obligations, pay a reasonable return to shareholders and secure investment for the future.
The consultancy points out: 'There are only two sources of revenue - the customer and the taxpayer. It is a harsh reality that one or the other has to pay, or the services will have to be reduced to levels that are affordable. To pretend otherwise is to mislead both policymakers and voters.'
Much more work is needed, though, to persuade drivers to leave their cars at home. Attitudes seem to have changed little in the quarter of a century since the then-UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher is alleged to have said: 'A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.' Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar Marshall McLuhan phrased the central problem more elegantly: 'The car has become... an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad and incomplete.'