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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 61· No. 5 > Editor's Notes

March/April 1998
Vol. 61· No. 5

Editor's Notes

Traffic congestion is a very serious problem in the United States, and the only feasible solution is to continuously adapt existing and emerging technologies for transportation applications.

In 1995, 300 interstate highway system segments operated at a level of 220,000 or more vehicles per day. About 80 percent of Americans live in areas with a population of 50,000 or more, and 88 percent drive to work. Congestion, with traffic moving at speeds of less than 35 miles per hour (56 kilometers per hour) during rush hour, has increased from 30 percent in 1983 to 40 percent in 1990. And to make matters worse, traffic volume over the next 20 years is expected to increase another 50 percent.

Congestion is the cancer of transportation. It creates problems that cost an estimated $40 billion dollars a year, and commuters and travelers lose about 2 billion hours annually to the Big "C" - congestion. And like cancer, it may first be discovered in one part of the transportation "body," but over time, if left unchecked, it will metastasize to all the vital organs - mobility, productivity, safety, environment (air quality), and even national security.

In the United States, literally millions of commuters spend two to four hours a day "on the road." For many of these people, this situation creates its own "way of life" that affects their health (sleep deprivation, increased stress and anxiety) and their interpersonal relationships ("kicking the dog," increased aggressive driving and "road rage," lack of leisure time, lack of family "quality time").

Many transportation officials have said that we cannot build our way out of this problem. It is virtually impossible to secure the necessary land and to construct enough highway lanes to increase capacity to satisfy an ever-increasing demand.

Federal Highway Administrator Kenneth R. Wykle said we must use "technology and information to significantly increase the capacity and productivity of our current infrastructure." This solution is reflected in the Federal Highway Administration's 1998 National Strategic Plan, which proposes to use technology and information systems to reduce delays on federal-aid highways by 20 percent in 10 years.

Many cities have already achieved impressive improvements in traffic flow, using advanced traffic management technologies. The traffic management system in Lexington, Ky., reduced stop-and-go delays by 40 percent and accidents by 31 percent. On one seven-mile (11-kilometer) road through Overland Park, Kan., the city reduced the travel time by eight minutes with nine fewer stops. Wichita Falls, Texas, had a 16-percent drop in stops, a 31-percent drop in delays, and an 8.5-percent drop in accidents.

In this issue, we feature an article about the efforts of a coalition of 26 public agencies and 13 private organizations in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area to reduce the congestion problem in and around the nation's capital. This unique partnership, called Partners In Motion, created a traveler information network that provides on-demand, real-time, route-specific information on all modes of travel - highway, bus, rail, and air - to assist travelers in making informed decisions on the most efficient means of reaching their destinations. The aims are to reduce travel time and traffic-related stress.

Although intelligent transportation systems, incorporating state-of-the-art technology and information systems, are costly, they are very inexpensive when compared to the alternatives. We cannot afford not to take advantage of technology at every turn. For example, to keep pace with the projected increase in traffic volume, the United States needs to increase highway capacity by 34 percent. It would cost $150 billion over 10 years to build the additional roads or lanes to meet the needs of the 50 largest cities in the country. For only $10 billion, the same 50 cities could implement an intelligent transportation infrastructure from scratch and provide two-thirds of the needed capacity.

A 1-percent improvement in the efficiency of this country's transportation system would save the U.S. economy $100 billion over the next decade. What a fantastic return on investment!

FHWA has set its goals to increase the productivity, efficiency, and safety of America's highways. With the help of the states and other partners, the agency is determined to create an intelligent transportation infrastructure using technological advancements to save much of the $40 billion and 2 billion hours currently lost each year to congestion.

Bob Bryant

Editor

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