Smarter Solutions to Traffic

As GDP goes up, MPH goes down.

I have an INRIX traffic app on my phone. INRIX provides real-time information on traffic conditions which, as anyone who spends anytime behind the wheel, is critical information if you want to go anywhere in a timely manner.  If you have an Audi, BMW, Ford, or Toyota, you may have the company’s tech embedded in your vehicle.

One of the things that INRIX does, because it has massive amounts of traffic data (“trillions of data points”), is to put together an annual “Traffic Scorecard.”  Includes information on the country as a whole (talking the U.S. here, though they also look at other locales in the world), as well as specific municipalities.

The good news for the auto industry that INRIX has discerned is also the bad news for the auto industry.  That is, they have devised a correlation between economic conditions and the amount of traffic on the road.  They have concluded that things are getting better in the U.S. not only because in 2013 the GDP grew by 1.9%, but because after two years of declines, the amount of traffic congestion increased 6% in 2013 compared to 2012.

More people are back to work.  More people are driving to work.  More people are sitting in traffic.

As they pithily put it, “As GDP goes up, MPH goes down.”

Which means that with the ending of the Great Recession, people are sitting in traffic for a non-trivial amount of time.  Looking at the top 100 metropolitan areas, the company statisticians have determined that people are spending an average of 47 hours sitting in traffic each year.  That’s like an entire vacation week.  No matter how comfy the seat, no matter how awesome the audio system, that’s a lot of hours.

While everyone probably thinks that L.A. is where there is the greatest amount of congestion, it turns out that everyone is right.  It ranks #1 on the INRIX list of “worst traffic cities.”  People waste 64 hours stuck in traffic, and that’s up 8.5%.  What may be surprising is the #2 city on the list.  No, it’s not New York (#5; 53 hours, up 5% from 2012), even though traffic there doesn’t seem to move at all, unless the vehicles are painted yellow.

The second-worst traffic city is Honolulu.  Sixty hours stuck in traffic.  An 18% increase in congestion.

Presumably there aren’t a whole lot of people who reside and work there who are still saying “Lucky you live in Hawaii.”

The point is that the amount of congestion—or gridlock—that’s occurring both in the U.S. and around the world will undoubtedly lead to legislation that will limit the number of vehicles within municipalities (think of what’s happened in London over the last few years, where it has become exceedingly expensive to drive).  What’s more, drivers, tired of becoming sitters, may simply consider other forms of transportation, which will have a negative effect on the sales of new vehicles.

Speaking of the report, Bryan Mistele, INRIX president and CEO, said, “If we’re to avoid traffic congestion becoming a further drain on our economies, we must invest in intelligent transportation systems and connected car technologies now.  It’s too late to build our way out of congestion—we’ve learned there is no such thing as ‘shovel-ready projects.’  Optimizing road networks through better technology and data analytics will be the only way to relive congestion as the economy recovers in the near term.”

More smarts and less concrete may be the solution.  That said, given the crumbling state of much of the infrastructure, more than a few shovels are necessary, too.  Silicon is important, but concrete is essential for automobility as we know it.  Both need to come together to solve this nice, but vexing, problem of too many cars going to the same places at the same time.