No New Math from China Traffic Jam

This week provided another opportunity to review the state of progress of demand management for roadway traffic. A spectacular traffic jam outside of Beijing attracted world attention, likely only because it has lasted several days, instead of the more usual hour or two that we now frequently enjoy as a respite from our families while listening to our favorite music.

A WSJ article
by Carl Bialik (2010.08.28), The Inconvenient Truth About Traffic Math: Progress Is Slow, opens with “there is absolutely no way congestion can stop increasing” then hauls out a stack of miserable statistics such as “peak-hour trips now average 25% longer than non-peak hour trips, up from 9% longer 25 years earlier”.

Several solution approaches are mentioned, then criticized as ineffective (“tools [such as ramp metering] shaved an average of about three minutes of travel time for each rush-hour commuter, each week”) or rejected outright (“adding roads … lead[s] to more travel, because of an effect … describe[d] as triple convergence. Many drivers who had shifted their trips to off-peak hours, or to different roads, or to public transit, resume their previous pattern and converge onto the new highway”).

Instead, we are “working to spread traffic out more evenly” (which we were told a paragraph before will save me a whopping 3 minutes per week).

The rest of the article completes a litany of disturbing stats and limp solutions – solutions we already know are growing in cost and diminishing in effectiveness. Ominous in its expense and limited effectiveness will be to “merge data from 60 million devices to detect patterns and build a prediction engine…to predict traffic accurately within 20 minutes, at 80% reliability.”

The Montague Street Flyover
Another will “weave together information about multiple modes of transportation, including road and rail, then attempt to shift traffic accordingly [by using] such information to tell drivers, via electronic roadway signs, how long it will take to get to a popular destination by different routes.” Such approaches are intended to “get a lot more use out of our existing transportation infrastructure.”

Well, very little, actually. We know well that these measures all have minor impacts, like the earlier 3-minute-per-week effect. Similar to attempting to cure Alzheimer’s with Ginkgo Biloba, these impacts are swamped by the growth in vehicle miles traveled as populations grow, accumulate wealth, buy cars, abandon transit, and spread out. Cumulatively, all of our increasingly complex smoothing tools and sanding tricks provide only diminishing returns in congestion abatement.

And we all know this.

There is one tool that has proven the exception: road pricing. Done correctly, as in Stockholm, Singapore or on the SR-91, it produces an initial 15-25% traffic reduction, which can then be sustained with market pricing.

So what’s new? Nothing, really. Every one of the people quoted by Bialik in his Times article knows, studies, writes about or sells road pricing as a solution to the problem. So, why no mention of the only known sustainable solution? WSJ editorial policy? Bialik doesn’t like the idea? The solution just slipped everyone’s mind when interviewed by Bialik?

Why do we persist in hoping and praying like this? “Oh Great Transportation Fairy, we pour out our hearts that you will grant us our birth-right of infinite road space. We know you do not listen, but we beseech you anyway.”

As my mother often told me: “The Transportation Fairy helps those who help themselves.”, but as Bialik documents, rather than help ourselves we seem satisfied praying to some pretty minor saints.


We need a new ready-made collection platform for road fees

One of the largest differences between collecting fuel taxes and collecting road-use taxes (and this plays very much against the business of collecting road-use taxes) is that a century ago there was a convenient measurement node and collection platform already in place (fuel distributors).  Government(s) merely had to tap into an existing infrastructure.  Relative to any of the current proposed approaches to collecting for road use from each vehicle (RFID/DSRC, GPS, Cellular, Camera, OBD, Odometer, Vignette), collecting at several hundred fuel distribution nodes is smart, easy and cheap.

Making the critically important shift from fuel-consumption tax to road-consumption tax has almost everything stacked against it except that it would (if priced correctly) solve many of our surface transportation problems (funding, congestion, emissions, oil dependence). The problem with all the proposed replacement collection methods is their business execution model: build an elaborate, dedicated, complex, confusing, and expensive infrastructure that is subject to greater user resistance and mischief, to collect a few dollars a week from each vehicle – a terribly small amount for such a complex operation.

This is why the economically inefficient fuel tax is preferred. This is why even less efficient sales taxes are preferred. This is why property taxation is preferred and heavily used. And this is why, in the United States, we are currently back-filling the fuel tax out of the General Fund. From the simple business of finding an affordable assessment and collection mechanism pretty much anything other than metering each vehicle is a more expedient business to administer.

If there was a device already in each vehicle – a reliable device that had another, highly desired, indispensable purpose, i.e., a purpose comparable in importance as having fuel in your tank – such a device could carry an embedded road-use meter and become the collection platform for the replacement of the fuel tax.

We already know several ways to make such devices.  What we are missing is a way to make it have a highly desirable and indispensable purpose. We are missing a free, pre-existing collection platform model to rival the fuel distribution business model that Governments so easily exploited over the past century. This is why building a new, dedicated tax-collection infrastructure that reaches into every vehicle is wrong-headed. And this is why promoting telematics systems for safety, convenience, traveler services, parking payment, PAYD insurance and infotainment – systems that can carry road-use metering functionality for little or no marginal cost – should be the first order.

Such systems can be made desirable, useful, reliable and nearly self-enforceable.  They can make our roads safer, our drives more pleasant, our trip more efficient, our roads less congested and save almost all of us money.  Much more importantly – for matters of funding, demand management, emissions management and oil dependence – such systems can provide the basis for private enterprise to offer profitable and competitive services, just as fuel distributors already offered profitable and competitive services a century ago.

If markets for telematics-based parking and insurance metering, for safety systems, for traveler services and for infotainment were nurtured, standardized, encouraged and in some cases (insurance, parking) regulated or legislated in newer and smarter ways, private enterprise would build the telematics platform governments need to replace the cheap, convenient collection platform afforded by the fuel distributors over a hundred years ago.

This idea should hardly be surprising.  We have been in the Information Age for some decades. Automotive telematics is an information technology. We have ignored the obvious for too long. A private, for-profit telematics platform with numerous desired driver-service applications can be exploited to avoid system operational costs of road tolling, using the same business thinking that governments used to exploit the fuel distribution system a century ago.


Kant, Morality, Traffic and Big Brother

I have spent seven years (more like 45 man-years if you count the whole team) developing technology for anonymous metering of road use so that governments can rescue our failing surface transport systems by replacing the fuel tax with road-pricing that is a lot more private than the current tolling technologies such as E-ZPass or SunPass.

My started a company to do that because I am a privacy freak and knowing that we need to move to pay-by-road-use instead pay-by-fuel-tax or pay-by-property-tax, I wished to have nothing to do with being ‘tracked’. I also knew that privacy would become one of the barriers to solving the “wicked problem” of congestion. There are several other reasons for our ‘acceptance-by-design work’, but two ideas are enough for one blog.

Now it turns out that my company’s work is not only good for transportation funding, demand management, reducing emissions, and your privacy, but now it seems it is also good for your moral character.

Emrys Westacott, Professor of Philosophy at Alfred University, asks Does Surveillance Make Us Morally Better. Turns out surveillance may be better for society in some cases (such as traffic surveillance for speeding or drunk driving), but it is not necessarily good for your personal moral development, such as a parent strapping a webcam onto the cookie jar.

I’m sure he’d come down on the side of absolutely privacy of road use. Read his article, and see why. Makes those seven long years of hard work worthwhile…