Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent

LA has the reputation, deserved or not, for having some of the worst traffic jams. Well, the pressure’s off. A first-ever global survey of motorists in 20 large cities conducted by IBM shows that when it comes to traffic, LA is practically commuter nirvana compared to some of the world’s other metropolises. On a scale of 0 to 100, taking into account such variables as commuting time, stuck-in-traffic time, and driving-caused stress, Beijing, Mexico City, and Johannesburg were practically off-the-charts painful, with scores of 99, 99, and 97. Meanwhile, LA scored 25, just six points  higher than New York City. The best places were Stockholm, with a score of 15, and Melbourne, 17.

The results of the survey point to a growing global need: Better management of transportation systems to get people where they want to go faster. “In the mega cities in fast-developing countries, they need to address these issues with a high level of urgency or their transportation systems will break down completely. Every street could become a parking lot,” says Naveen Lamba, the industry lead for intelligent transportation in IBM’s Global Business Services division.

Commuter Pain Index

The detailed results of the survey show that many of the efforts to take the pressure off highways aren’t catching hold. For instance, carpooling gets only low-single-digit participation in most of the cities. New Delhi, with 11%, and Johannesburg, with 8%, are a couple of the relative bright spots.  More typical are Buenos Aires’ 4% and Houston’s 3%. In the United States, neither the establishment of HOV lanes or commuter parking lots has made much of a difference. The ranks of telecommuters are sparse all over, too. Just 4% of those in Johannesburg work at home–the highest rate. It’s zero in Madrid, Moscow, Beijing, and Mexico City.

Indications are that the situations in some burgeoning cities will only get worse. Right now only 39% of commuters in Beijing drive their own cars, compared to 92% in LA. But the situation is changing fast. The number of new cars registered in Beijing in the first four months of 2010 rose 23.8% to 248,000, according to the Beijing municipal taxation office. Clearly, when more people in Beijing own cars, the authorities will have to add even more ring roads to the ever-growing network of  highways encircling the city.

Fortunately, Beijing authorities aren’t counting on highway projects alone to address their exploding transportation needs. Beijing’s total investments in its subway system are projected to be nearly $50 billion through 2015 as the city  more than doubles its current reach, according to Beijing Infrastructure Investment Co., Ltd.

Across the globe, relief will come only when cities and metropolitan regions consolidate authority over all or most transportation modes on a single agency–or a small handful of agencies. Lamba says they need to coordinate the operations of everything from roads and bridges to ferries, trains, and subways. That way, they can put together a package of incentives and disincentives that redistribute commuters to different modes of transportation–with the primary goal of removing many one-person cars from the roads at peak travel times. Such an approach is working in Singapore and London, and is beginning to work in Dubai.

I saw one bright spot in the survey results that gave me a little bit of hope for the future: a handful of cities where large numbers of people bicycle or walk to work. For instance, 23% of Amsterdam’s commuters use bicycles as a primary mode of transportation; and 10% of the people in Buenos Aires walk. Unfortunately, in many cities, the places where people work and live have been divorced from each other, so there’s little hope of changing the situation in any meaningful way. Or, maybe that’s too bleak a conclusion. What if cities set up something like those airport people conveyors on sidewalks or streets? Weather’s a factor, sure, but maybe there’s a way it could be done.

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Mexico City’s congestion problems

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July 2, 2010
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Was access to public transportation taken into account for this study? Being a commuter in Los Angeles for many years, I have to imagine the pain index would shift dramatically through this filter as Madrid, Sao Paolo, London, Paris, and Amsterdam all have options to avoid commuting in your own car. Those who commute on their own may experience more congestion in these cities, but the fact their are options to avoid this situation creates a bit of an apples to oranges comparison.


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