Monday, May 30, 2011

The challenge of traffic management

One of the biggest concerns with traffic management in urban centers is the explosive growth in vehicle population, far outpacing the growth in road network expansion.

The standard bureaucratic solution to addressing this challenge is to widen roads and build fly-overs. This is understandable, since it is the easiest solution to implement and generates immediate benefits, atleast for some time. In fact, it is even necessary, since it is important to realize the fullest available carriageway. However, on a longer-term perspective, such measures are only kicking the can down the road.

As has been the experience from across the world and in our own cities, any road expansion triggers off the cliched Parkinson's law. Supply creates its own demand. More carriageway immediately attracts more vehicles.

Any sustainable solution to traffic management requires demand-side measures that encourages public transport usage, discourages private vehicles, and enables human beings to make rational decisions about their travel plans and road usage. An appropriate mixture of these interventions can improve traffic management.

The first requires massive investments in public transit systems and their careful integration with all other modes of transport, public and private. It is as much an exercise in urban planning as transport management. In this context, it is also important to bear in mind that, as experience from across the world shows, such investments have to be heavily subsidized. Most importantly, a good public transit system is a pre-requisite for the success of all other demand side interventions.

Across the world, a large number of countries have experimented with a slew of initiatives to discourage the usage of private vehicles. They have included measures to both make vehicle ownership and usage expensive. For more than two decades, Singapore has a policy that mandates that all vehicle owners have a Certificate of Entitlement (COE). As part of this policy, quotas restrict the number of new cars (to maintain only a certain level of vehicle growth) and vehicle owners have to buy COE permits in auctions. The high COE permit auction rates act as a prohibitive tax on vehicle ownership.

Similarly, in China, faced with exploding vehicle population, Shanghai has for several years now been conducting monthly "license plate auctions". In a reflection of the growing demand for vehicles, bid rates have averaged a record 46,000 yuan ($6,900) in recent times.

Buoyed by Shanghai's success, Beijing recently adopted a lottery system to issue car license plates. It even goes beyond Shanghai and mandates that new registrations are only being given to only those who have paid tax and social insurance in the city for more than five years. Further, cars licensed in other parts of China are now forbidden from driving during peak hours in the capital’s main urban area. All this will restrict registrations to just 240,000 additional vehicles in 2011, a third of the current annual level, and is estimated to take 10 m potential buyers out of the market.

Singapore, London, and a few other European cities have sought to levy congestion charges in certain high traffic density areas to dis-incentivize vehicle usage there at certain times. Many Chinese cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hangzhou are now toying with congestion charges. Policies that seek to internalize the parking charges are another approach to limit vehicle usage, atleast in certain areas and certain times. Cities like London, Hong Kong, and New York, with their heavy parking fees, impose a huge premium on private vehicle usage. Some Chinese cities like Ningbo are even considering forcing citizens to own a parking space before they can buy a car.

Some of the Latin American cities have experimented with barring odd and even-numbered vehicles on designated week-days. Car-pooling has for long been a favorite in many parts of the US (though it is now going out of favor in many areas).

Finally, it is important to provide people with information about traffic conditions in the most readily usable manner. This will help them make rational decisions on effective road utilization. In many respects, road traffic has striking similarities with a free market. Consumers base their decisions to purchase goods and services based on price, quality, and some other parameters. Similarly, people make their travel plan, route and vehicle usage choices, subject to certain constraints - parking charges, vehicle usage costs, traffic intensity at the time etc.

Like in the free-market, it is possible to generate more efficient traffic outcomes, if people are provided with traffic-related information in the most appropriate manner. This does not mean flooding people with all available information, but channeling it in a cognitively salient and easy-to-use manner. This makes easy for people to make choices that can optimize on their travel times and therefore improve traffic management.

Intelligent traffic management systems, that use technology-intensive devices, which are integrated to each other, can be very effective in effective rendering such information.

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