Television footage of clogged highways in Los Angeles may have given rise to the impression that the United States has the worst traffic congestion on the planet. And, yes, Americans do spend an average of 14.4 hours per year sitting in peak-period traffic jams, according to a 2011 analysis by the website New Geography of data from INRIX, which provides information on traffic flows.
But that figure accounts for just one-third of the amount of time wasted in traffic jams in western Europe, where peak-period congestion causes an average delay of 39.5 hours per driver per year. The UK has the highest average delay, at 47 hours. Brussels is the most congested city in Europe, according to a recent survey by satellite navigation company TomTom.
Electric cars and alternative fuels will do nothing to solve the traffic problem and could result in what some have dubbed ‘clean congestion’.
“There are all kinds of things we can do with vehicles, but unless you have a good network to run on, all that is wasted,” says Steve Philips, secretary-general of road research association FEHRL. The European Commission’s transport white paper acknowledges this. “No major change in transport will be possible without the support of an adequate network and more intelligence in using it,” it notes.
Intelligent transport systems (ITS), by which vehicles and roads can communicate with each other and with road managers, is a rapidly expanding area of research. Sensors are being built into vehicles that can receive information about speed limits. They can also communicate with other cars, for instance to recognise when another vehicle is nearby.
Car manufacturers have big plans to expand these capabilities. Ford has developed a ‘blueprint for mobility’ that aims to have vehicles on the market within five to seven years that can alert drivers about traffic jams and accidents, and communicate with cloud data systems and infrastructure within 13 years. It also aims to introduce ‘self-driving’ cars at some point after 2025.
“Cars are becoming mobile communications platforms, and as such they are a great untapped opportunity for the telecoms industry,” the company’s executive chairman, Bill Ford, told the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month. “We will increasingly take advantage of the car as a rolling collection of sensors to reduce congestion and help prevent accidents.”
Work on intelligent roads has been slower, but is accelerating. “We are working to put IT systems in the road infrastructures themselves,” says Phillips. “It would go beyond just communication with a vehicle, it would make the road smarter. How do we have a road that really understands its state of repair so it can inform its owners of its state of maintenance and when it needs to be replaced?”
Roads will eventually be able to monitor the condition of their own surface and communicate the conditions to vehicles, Phillips says.
Researchers at TU Delft in the Netherlands aim to go even further. The university is developing real-time models that monitor data signals in order to predict traffic conditions in networks up to 60 minutes ahead. Implementation of this technology could be just a few years away.
Further into the future, driverless vehicles could be developed that would take over in times of severe congestion or emergency. Early versions of such cars could be commercially available as early as 2020. “When traffic operations switch to an automated state, that means that the driver can relax and pick up a newspaper,” says Hans van Lint, a researcher on the project at TU Delft. “The car – through sensors on the freeway and in-car systems in all other cars – would maintain a safe distance of around 25 metres from the vehicle in front at a comfortable cruising speed of around 90 kilometres per hour.”
Though futuristic IT solutions may be the more exciting way of tackling congestion, old-fashioned road-building and maintenance is likely to play the bigger role.
The Commission’s proposal for a revised Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) road network for the 2014-20 period, now known as ‘Connecting Europe’, would allocate EU funds to projects that address Europe’s most serious bottlenecks.
The Commission estimates that the cost of EU infrastructure development to match demand will be €1.5 trillion between 2010 and 2030. The completion of the TEN-T – the core roads, railway lines, waterways and aviation routes, and transport infrastructure in the EU – alone, will require about €550 billion until 2020, of which €215 bn is needed just to remove the main bottlenecks. This does not include the investment in vehicles, equipment and charging infrastructure for new types of vehicles, which could add an extra €1 trillion to the bill.
Phillips says new construction and repairs are necessary to make roads adaptable to changing conditions and resilient to natural degradation. “We need to use techniques that allow the roads to be maintained faster and cheaper, and in a way that nobody notices the maintenance,” he says.
FEHRL is developing such solutions with its ‘Forever Open Road’ programme, and it has a number of projects running through the EU’s seventh framework programme for research.
It is not just the infrastructure that will change. The price we pay to use it is also expected to rise. Policy-makers are increasingly questioning the wisdom of charging everyone – even those who do not drive – for the upkeep of roads through taxation. While some countries, such as France, have extensive systems of tolls in place, others, such as Belgium and the UK, do not.
“Transport charges and taxes must be restructured in the direction of wider application of the ‘polluter pays’ and ‘user pays’ principle,” the Commission says in its white paper. “In the future, transport-users are likely to pay for a higher proportion of the costs than today.”
In October, EU rules were changed to allow countries using the ‘Eurovignette’ tolling system to charge lorries for the air and noise pollution they cause. Transport experts expect the Commission to increase pressure on member states to introduce tolling.
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“The vast majority of EU countries are already levying or planning some kind of road-user charge for motorways, with good results in cutting pollution and helping to cover the maintenance bills, so I would expect all of them will do so well before 2020,” says Nina Renshaw of green transport group T&E. “But they are still not allowed to ask for payments towards climate costs or accidents. In the future these should be included in a minimum kilometre charge, and EU funds for transport should only be granted where the polluter is asked to pay.”
Although the Commission’s white paper stresses that curbing mobility is not seen as an aim for the future, it seems inevitable that, to meet its ambitious climate, congestion and safety goals, there are going to have to be significant changes to the price Europeans pay to drive.