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Will Smarter Roads Save Us Money?

By: Phil Patton
New York Times "Wheels" Blog
October 24, 2009

Link to Original Article

Traffic congestion reduces gross national product around the world by 1 percent, I.B.M. researchers calculate — a serious chunk of money. To do something about it, Big Blue has been experimenting in Australia, Hong Kong, Scotland and the Netherlands on new ideas for smart roads to speed traffic.

Now, in combination with the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, an organization devoted to finding ways to produce smarter infrastructure, I.B.M. is offering an award for the best idea of reducing congestion. (Other partners in the effort include the nonprofit Spencer Trask Collaborative Innovations, AAA, the American Highway Users Alliance, the Environmental Defense Fund, ITS Sweden and the California and Virginia Departments of Transportation.)

The winner might be an individual a company or a nonprofit group, said Gerry Mooney, I.B.M.’s general manager of global government and education.

The sponsors of the winning idea will receive a $50,000 prize. But winning is not the only thing, Mr. Mooney explained. The point of the contest is to gather fresh ideas, generated by individuals and organizations.

Smart roads are increasingly attractive to transportation officials during hard times. We don’t have the funds or time to build more pavement, the argument goes, but we can increase what the traffic researchers call “throughput” with traffic signals, information and software. Smart highways could use such strategies as congestion pricing to even out traffic.

Naveen Lamba, whose title reads like a long backup of traffic: Global Industry Lead, Intelligent Transportation, I.B.M. Global Business Services, said in a recent telephone interview that public officials were growing more enthusiastic about efforts to build smart roads. The benefits of spending on directing traffic, he argued, are much greater than the benefits of the same amount of money spent on new asphalt. “If you blend the digital into the physical spending you get more bang for the buck,” he said.

In the United States, highway problems are exacerbated because the basic federal gasoline tax used to finance roads has not been raised since 1993. The funds the tax generates have not kept up with inflation, deterioration in highways or maintenance costs, and the revenue has also been reduced by the adoption of more fuel-efficient vehicles. Vehicles that burn less fuel pay less tax, but wear out highways at the same rate. Vehicles that consume no gasoline or diesel at all, like electrics or hydrogen, will of course pay no tax.

In consequence, I.B.M. reports, more governments are looking to supplement or replace fuel taxes. I.B.M. programmers are working on systems to charge per-mile user fees as an alternative.

Their basic plan calls for each car to be equipped with an electronic black box using GPS to record its location, speed and direction. In addition to providing billing by distance, location and time of day — higher charges at rush hour, for instance — the information assembled could help smooth traffic by updating information systems, sending traffic alerts, shifting lane directions and so on. Mr. Lamba said he believed that such systems might be closer than most drivers thought.

“A couple of years ago, people said, yes, we will have a system like this, but some time in the future, maybe in 15 or 20 years,” he said. “Now it is serious. If we start pilot programs now we could get moving in three to five years. The technology is here.”

Mr. Lamba’s point was underlined by his own experience. He was forced to cancel an earlier interview for this article because of traffic problems.

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