It’s like I’ve said from day one, “Where you have a lot of cars, you have a lot of traffic” (you can quote me on that but please, do not include my real name). Now that time-tested quote may not make sense at first, but just think about it. Ponder it. Discuss it with your children. OK, you can stop pondering. Think about this instead: there are approximately 230 million licensed drivers in the U.S., including 42 million – almost one in five – who are 65 years or older. This age group is growing faster than any other, and is far outpacing their teenage counterparts. And perhaps even more interesting, the largest increase in licensed drivers are those between 75-79 years old, an increase of 5% over the previous year.
Where is this headed?
More cars, a growing population, people living longer (I’m OK with that last one), all translates into more traffic and increased congestion. Now “traffic congestion” is a relative term — it generally refers to more traffic than what you prefer. For example, someone from San Diego would be overjoyed with the traffic “congestion” in Indianapolis. That being said, there are quantitative tools for calculating traffic congestion (thus removing local biases) and likewise, there are traffic engineering solutions to provide relief. Granted, some solutions require several years and hundreds of orange barrels. Others require only a few weeks and one orange barrel (to sit on). Often, simply re-optimizing traffic signal timings, synchronizing adjacent traffic signals, or adding turn arrows can provide significant improvement. Further solutions could include converting a 2-way stop to a 4-way, adding a new traffic signal, or even a carefully designed roundabout…
However, fast forward ten years. Autonomous cars are now commonplace — accidents rates are decreasing — and there are LOTS more cars on the roadway (note: “LOTS,” when capitalized, is a traffic engineering term referring to TONS more of something). But here’s the good news: fast forward 100 years and you won’t even care about stuff like this. And here’s the in-between news: at some point, maybe within 15 years, 100% of cars will either be autonomous or “autonomous-enhanced” utilizing aftermarket devices available from well-known automotive stores such as Ralph’s, Bob’s, and NAPA.
This is important because when cars are 100% autonomous (or autonomous-enhanced), vehicles become electronically “linked” to nearby vehicles. Essentially, car “trains” are formed with perhaps only 2-3 feet between vehicles. From a traffic engineering perspective, this means roadway capacities increase and congestion decreases — all without having to add additional lanes, interchanges, or roundabouts! So be patient; we are living in a transitional period where traffic volumes are increasing faster than roadway construction, resulting in increased congestion. However, while waiting for autonomous devices to take over our lives, most traffic congestion and/or safety concerns can be mitigated through careful analysis of traffic volumes, changes in traffic patterns, and consideration of projected growth and development.
Chet Skwarcan has over 25 years of traffic engineering experience and can be reached at Chet@TrafficEngineering.com.