Traffic and congestion affect all urban centers, and their impact on city life will continue to grow as cities do. In fact, the UN estimates that around 70% of people will be living in cities by 2050. A large proportion of these cities will be in the developing world, where growing economies mean increasing private vehicle use. Therefore, there is an acute need for effective traffic and congestion solutions. Recent studies have shown traffic and congestion have a major effect not only on cities’ overall greenhouse gas emissions but also on the mental and physical health of urban citizens.
Cities that “get smart” and invest in intelligent mobility technologies can help reduce the toll of traffic and congestion on the environment, citizen health, and quality of life. They can also save money overall by reducing the rate of traffic incidents and assuring that those that do happen are attended to rapidly. Smart technologies can help local authorities modernize workflows, helping to centralize their management of urban mobility, security, and other public services into a single overarching system.
The impact of traffic and congestion on cities
Poor Emergency Response Rates
Clearly, a principal cause of traffic jams and delays is congestion, but less well-recognized is the link between congestion and low incident response times. It is widely accepted among academics and professionals working in the police and public health services that congestion severely affects response times, putting citizens’ lives at risk. After all, a few minutes can mean the difference between life and death.
Traffic and congestion not only increase the risk of road accidents but are the central cause of urban air pollution too. Cities are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, with transport making up 26% of emissions – a more significant contribution even than the energy sector in countries like the UK. In the face of rising national pressure to cut emissions to comply with the worldwide COP21 agreement to cap global warming at 2 degrees, cities must start reducing traffic and congestion now to meet this target.
The visual, sound, and air pollution caused by traffic and congestion has a significant effect on public health. Air pollution provokes and exacerbates long-term respiratory problems in urban citizens, with the European Environment Agency estimating that it causes around 400,000 premature deaths in Europe each year. Mentally, the effects of traffic-induced pollution are widespread too. Current research indicates that aside from the primary stress and anxiety caused by being delayed by traffic-jams, traffic and congestion can actually have a major contributing effect to apparently unconnected broader societal issues, such as domestic violence.
Aside from the petrol money that traffic wastes, it also makes things late – people going to work, children going to school, deliveries on their way to customers. Lateness costs money, both directly and indirectly. Workers waste possibly productive times in jams; moreover, the stress caused by traffic may impede their overall productivity over time. If this stress gets too much, and congestion actually causes people to move away from the city, then the urban economy takes a real hit as its ability to attract and retain relevant talent decreases. This is also true of tourism: if congestion is so bad as to discourage people from visiting the city, the economy loses out as tourism declines.
Unsuccessful delivery attempts (UDAs) are also in part caused by traffic and congestion; it is estimated that UDAs cost around €850 million (1050 dollars) a year to e-commerce companies. Just imagine the money that could be saved if even a fraction of these were prevented.
How smart technologies lessen these impacts
Smart mobility management systems
City mobility management systems, as a form of operational intelligence solutions, provide an umbrella approach to overseeing and monitoring urban mobility. They cover traffic flow, critical infrastructure, parking management and construction sites.
This approach means that city councils and transport operators can cut across departments, integrating existing operating systems into one overall platform that gives them the ability to see how the entire urban mobility system is working in real-time. City operators can use this real-time knowledge of traffic flows to generate insights, and consequently improve operating efficiency in the present and the future.
These insights allow local authorities to detect and deal with unforeseeable traffic issues and incidents faster, redirect traffic away from busy areas, provide alternative routes during construction work, manage parking throughout the city, and, most importantly, share the data with emergency services, allowing them to pick the best routes – ones that save more lives in less time.
Smart public transport systems
Improving public transport networks through smart technologies makes this infrastructure more efficient, usable and appealing. This reduces traffic and congestion as more people choose to switch from private vehicle use to public transport alternatives.
Intelligent transport systems, which include smart mobility systems for traffic and congestion, can integrate all forms of urban public transportation, and physical and digital infrastructure, to make public transport more efficiently managed, more passenger-centric, and autonomous. This often results in passengers traveling on the same ticket or subscription, whether via bus, bike, taxi, tram, or tube. The replacement of single-vehicle use with buses, bikes or trains reduces CO2 emissions and congestion and lowers noise levels.
Smart public transport systems are also more likely to be reliant on renewable, rather than fossil-fuel, energies. This means that, aside from cutting down pollution by reducing reliance on petrol or diesel road vehicles, smart public transport systems reduce the overall fossil-fuel emissions of city transport.
Citizen-led smart initiatives
Citizen-led apps that allow the public to report incidents and share traffic information, or that encourage users to walk, run or cycle instead of driving, are also providing new ways of reducing traffic and congestion and improving urban mobility. Traffic information-sharing apps like Waze, for example, allow citizens to share real-time information about traffic incidents and congestion, resulting in an interactive citywide map that is not only shared but constantly co-created by the community. Others, like Ciclogreen and Social Cyclist, offer users incentives to leave their car keys at home and take up cycling instead. These incentives range from discounts and points for every mile they cycle, to social meetup facilitation.
The Social Cyclist is particularly “smart” in that it gives citizens a direct platform through which they can let their local authority know about problems that they encounter while cycling – from potholes to antisocial behavior.
This kind of data, along with the traffic incidents reported in Waze, can be integrated into an overarching smart mobility system, bringing authorities “closer” to citizens as they begin an open and direct dialogue with the local community. This means improved civic participation in advancing the city’s mobility infrastructure, improved incident-response times and overall traffic flow, and more targeted and direct responses to citizens’ complaints. Alongside running communications campaigns, local councils and transport operators can thus also use smart technologies, such as citizen apps, to actively give the public a voice in how urban mobility is managed in their city, and also to incentivize them to reduce their private vehicle use, in turn decreasing traffic and congestion.