Saturday, July 2, 2011

Technology and Traffic Congestion

Transport for London can only see one thing in their crystal ball: traffic, and more of it. In their car-centric world view, the only way of getting something done is to get in a motor vehicle. The predicted growth of London population will inevitably mean more traffic, the alternative being economic stagnation and ruin. Right?

Predicting the future is very difficult to do, and no-one really wants to try  because they look ridiculous if they get it wrong. However, if we're going to plan for the future then we have to try to predict it. The intelligent thing to do is to look at the various factors that will interact, and come up with some likely-looking scenarios. The problem with this is it can turn up some surprising, and frightening predictions. Like climate change for instance. No politician, or transport engineer, wants to be delivering a message people don't want to hear. So the lazy, cowardly way to predict the future is to forecast that it will be exactly like the past, only more so, in a nice, gentle, linear-progression kind of way. People can relate to that; they can understand it and it doesn't frighten or threaten them. Even if it's unlikely to be true. That's why we get TfL predicting more traffic, even though climate change, increasing oil prices and squeezed incomes all point in the other direction. There's also another factor that may driver traffic and indeed travel in general down: technology.

Communications technologies mean we can keep in touch, work and shop remotely. That's one reason why high street shops are closing. These days, you could live a fairly rich life without ever setting foot outside your house. Technology, used correctly, can enable fewer motor journeys to be made.

The building blocks of technology that allows you to hail cabs electronically has been around for a while - smartphones with geo-location - and now we're starting to see apps that make the concept a reality. Basically, you signal your position and intended journey to a 'market', and a nearby cab driver can accept your fare, drive to your location and pick you up. In the long term this should mean less downtime for cab drivers, as there will be fewer cabs driving around empty looking for a fare and hence less congestion. It also means that if there are no cabs nearby available to take your fare, you could take the bus or tube instead of standing by a kerb waving haplessly at a succession of occupied black cabs. (However it's not all great news for black cab drivers because there is no reason why minicabs cannot apply for hire electronically, removing the one key advantage the black cabs have over their private-hire rivals.)

Technology will in time make it easier for people to take public transport or walk. Smartphones will become ubiquitous very soon indeed - even my wife has a smart-ish phone, and she's usually the last person in the country to embrace new technology - and all-you-can eat tariffs mean users don't have to worry about using apps such as Google Maps to find their way around. There will also be apps that know your current location and help you choose the fastest, or easiest, or cheapest way from A to B, and tell you when the next bus or train is due. So this should help reduce the number of people who only take a cab because they don't have the information to choose another mode. Technology may also help people avoid travel, by finding restaurants or entertainment close by.

Logistics is another area in which technology can reduce journeys. Currently, there are a lot of half-empty vans being driven around London. With real-time location information and the ability to match a load and its destination to a nearby vehicle, it becomes possible to deliver goods in a short timescale in a cheap and efficient way, with far fewer vehicles on aggregate than we currently have.

Above are just a few concepts that can be implemented with currently-available technology. You won't see much discussion in TfL documents about how these easily-foreseeable developments will affect traffic levels, yet they are trying to predict traffic 20 years into the future. 20 years ago, the internet didn't exist for practical purposes. TfL are not so much looking at the world through a car windscreen as through the rear-view mirror.


  1. "there will be fewer cabs driving around empty looking for a fare and hence less congestion."

    Surely a cab creates the same amount of congestion driving around whether empty or full?

  2. I do wonder where you are going with this.

    It is undoubtedly true that technology has transformed our lives, and in many ways which we probably didn't imagine two decades ago - when we probably thought computers would be the next big thing in the office, but would have little personal application, and we certainly didn't envisage computer power in a phone. (Most of us probably didn't anticipate being able to use a mobile phone for personal use, either).

    But do you think it has really changed anything much in the environmental sense? What, for example, ever happened to the "paperless office"? All this technology with emails, pdfs etc has increased the amount of paper we consume in the office, not reduced it. I really don't think technology such as conference calls or videoconferences has made a material difference to the amount of business travel for meetings either. Or Ocado changed the traffic around your local Waitrose.

    In any case, any spare capacity created by reducing certain types of demand is quickly re-occupied. If our airports have less business traffic going through them, then it hasn't made them any less congested, as leisure travel has grown. If fewer "necessary" journeys are made by cars or delivery vans etc, then they will simply be replaced by unnecessary ones. Congestion will find its own equilibrium again as more stag dos go to get bladdered in Tallinn instead of in Stoke Newington, more holidaymakers get their sunburn in Phuket instead of Southend, more people will spend their Sunday afternoons in futile trips to their local B&Q or garden centre where they will wonder around aimlessly for an hour before emerging with nothing.

    We do it because we can, or rather because we are willing to expend time, energy and money in ever more futile pursuits until we reach a watershed point, and it is no longer worth the candle. The only way that travel and traffic congestion and pollution will ever be reduced is by reducing supply, or capacity, by giving it to people who will use it more efficiently - that might mean exclusive lanes for multi-occupied cars or battery vehicles, but more to the point restore space and time to pedestrians and cyclists.

    And what did I hear on Radio 4 news this morning? More than a third of children being obese enough to be at risk of non-alcohol fatty liver disease, a ticking timebomb in our health system. Some Cassandras even suggest that we are breeding a generation of children who will be outlived by their parents!

  3. @PaulM: you are being very bleak. Teleworking is probably the lowest cost way to increase road capacity. a one-day-per-week @home is enough to reduce transport demand by 20%. Even without that, you can shift load -let people delete their emails with morning coffee and pootle in later. I do, even on my bike, then sprint home for the evening skype video conferences with the US. By reducing that peak hour load, you kill a lot of the rationale for over-capacity on the road network "to meet peak demand". Videoconferencing also takes a big cut out of business travel. Right now my employer has a "no internal travel" policy, because there shouldn't be any reason to. The latest generation of high bandwidth video confering displays and cameras are good. There is a price thought: the 09:00-10:00 conf with singapore starts the day, the 18:00-19:00 california call ends it. I get to visit two continents a day. That said: the elimination of my long-haul business flights is the greatest contribution I can make to my carbon footprint: every week-long US trip used to use more CO2 than of our entire family's car mileage. And if you look at BA's "fuel surcharge" situation, that isn't becoming more affordable as a leisure activity, despite all the advertisements.

    The rising cost of driving threatens those out of town shores -including B&Q- more than anything else: look at how John Lewis explicitly mentioned Cribb's Causeway in Bristol as underperforming compared to in-city outlets. That hour wandering aimlessly around becomes too expensive.

    There's another aspect of technology not covered here - communications on the move. People on a bike usually encounter this with people driving on the phone -it's the drivers' way of reducing the cost of congestion. You can still work. On a train, you can do more work, which is why the DfT need to rethink the cost of time on a train. It is no longer wasted time, the way being stuck in the M4 is; it's laptop time.

    Where it gets really interesting is public transport. On a bus you can text your friends, get your iphone out and check out facebook. That isn't something you can do in a car -or at least, those people who try to text while driving are a real threat to everyone nearby, much more than phone-drivers. Sitting in a bus isn't something for losers any more; it's for people who want to be online with their friends. That's hard for the car vendors to compete with. They'll try, first by pushing back on anti-distraction legislation, second by trying to integrate technology into the car. But the hard truth is this: you can't facebook and drive.

  4. A fairly straightforward way in which technology reduce travel is telecommuting. I work for a London based company, I live not too far so I can commute by bike (like many of my colleagues). Many colleagues work at least part of the time remotely, from Norfolk, Wales, Northern Ireland, Australia, and New York (that I am aware of). We have also found that allowing people to work from home occasionally actually increased productivity, but many managers do not like it because they don't SEE you work. Things will change quickly though.

  5. @SteveL - your comment got caught by Google's spam filter for some reason: shame as you picked up a couple of things I hadn't thought of.