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Would a rush-hour tax alleviate our worst traffic bottlenecks?

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A congestion charging system has significantly cut down rush-hour traffic in Stockholm. Could it work in the sprawling cities of North America?

Anyone who drives in and around major metropolitan areas at rush hour doesn't have to be told that traffic congestion is going from bad to worse. There's nothing relaxing about driving the Capital Beltway around Washington, D.C. or I-405 in Los Angeles at 8:00 a.m. or 5:30 p.m.

According to a new IBM research report, as the world becomes more urbanized -- with 70% of the population living in cities by the year 2050 -- a number of cities are struggling to keep pace with increased traffic and congestion problems accompanying urban growth. The report shows that transport has emerged as an urgent priority for municipal planners who need to improve traffic flow in order to promote cleaner, less congested cities.

These bottleneck zones have a significant cost all around in lost hours spent in traffic delays.  In one study a few years back, the US Federal Highway Administration estimated that the infamous I-5 "Orange Crush" interchange outside of LA results in a total of 16 million hours annually of delays to commuters. (Yes, you read that right -- millions of hours. And that's based on 2002 stats -- so you can imagine that figure would be much higher now.)  Here are some other shining examples:

  • Atlanta's "Spaghetti Junction" interchange -- the convergence of I-285 at I-85 -- was estimated to waste more than 17 million hours a year in traffic jams and bottlenecks.
  • In Las Vegas, the "Spaghetti Bowl" is not a pasta feast, but rather a messy, overcooked sauce where U.S. 95 meets I-15, consuming more than 11 million hours annually.
  • Tampa's "Malfunction Junction" -- where I-275 meets I-4  -- takes out more than 14 million hours a year. (The interchange was redesigned and reopened last year.)
  • U.S. 101 Ventura Freeway may be the stuff songs are written about, but when it crashes into I-405, it only has commuters singing the blues -- to the tune of more than 27 million lost annually.

How can this congestion be alleviated?  Various strategies have been employed, from High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes to building out more mass transit.

What if we applied the laws of incentives to commuting habits? That is, if we want to use the most heavily traveled routes at rush hour, we'd be expected to pay for that privilege?

Here's where information technology is stepping in to help. A compelling example emerging in Europe is a "congestion charging system" that has been employed with impressive results in Stockholm, Sweden.

IBM, the primary contractor for the system, said the system has significantly improved access to the Swedish capital by halving queuing times on access roads to the city in the mornings. City traffic is down by 18%, and CO2 emissions in the inner city have been cut by between 14% and 18%, based on estimates by Stockholm City Traffic authorities.

In addition, the number of "green” tax-exempt vehicles has almost tripled, with the study showing that the congestion charging system is the most influential factor in the decision to choose a "green" car. The number of commuters on public transport has increased by around seven percent or 60 000 passengers per day. During 2008, approximately 82 million vehicle passages were handled by the congestion charge system, which proved to be almost 100% accurate.

The system was rolled out in August 2007, following a successful pilot. Ulla Hamilton, Stockholm city commissioner of traffic and environment, describes how the results have panned out:

"It is quite clear that the positive effects of the congestion charging system are continuing. Reducing traffic volumes, decreasing CO2 emissions and improving accessibility is bringing significant benefits to the city, its visitors, and residents, and has been a major factor in Stockholm being awarded European Green Capital for 2010.  It is also satisfying to see that the retail business in the city has not suffered as a result of the traffic charging system, as many critics originally feared.”

The congestion charge is a national tax, with net income expected to be USD $84 million in 2010, returned to the Stockholm region for investment in traffic infrastructure.

The Stockholm system is the largest of its kind in Europe, with 18 barrier-free control points around the inner city equipped with cameras to identify vehicles around a 15-square-mile area. IBM said it is also assisting the cities of London, Singapore and Brisbane to address traffic management and congestion challenges.

Of course, European cities are far more compact than those in North America, which tend to sprawl in all directions, with the interstates following. Would the long-suffering commuters passing through the Orange Crush or Spaghetti Junction every day be willing to pay a little more for a little less congestion?

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure