Technology more effective at managing traffic congestion than building more roads

Cosmopolitans like London have limited land area for additional road expansion; therefore, technology is the key to effective traffic management.
- Assistant Professor Aaron Cheng
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Using technology - such as video cameras, algorithms, and electronic road signs - to manage traffic congestion is more effective than building more roads, according to a new study from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

The study, published in Information Systems Research this week explores the impact of a large government-supported Intelligent Transportation System, called 511 systems, on traffic congestion in the United States.

An Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) is a network of technology embedded in transport infrastructure and vehicles to improve safety and mobility. For example, it can include the installation of video cameras and sensors on roads and bridges to collect real-time traffic information, which is used to update commuters and local governments on traffic conditions.

Lead author, Assistant Professor Aaron Cheng (LSE), and U.S. colleagues Min-Seok Pang (Temple University) and Paul A. Pavlou (University of Houston) found ITS helps individual commuters make better travel decisions to avoid congestion (e.g., to use a different route or mode of transport). It also helps local governments manage traffic in real-time. For example, through opening, closing and merging lanes; speed limit changes and traffic diversions.

The data collected by ITS also helps officials monitor and analyse traffic patterns, enabling them to make more long-term strategic transport and infrastructure plans. For example, algorithms can be used to dynamically predict congestion status in the future and change road supply and resources.

Overall, the researchers found the adoption of 511 Systems between 2000 and 2014 led to a significant decrease in urban traffic congestion, leading to savings of over $4.7 billion dollars and 175 million hours of travel time annually in US cities. It also reduced fossil fuel consumption by about 53 million gallons and saved over 10 billion pounds of CO2 emissions.

By comparing the impacts of increasing road supply and using ITS, the study shows that ITS can be more effective in mitigating traffic congestion than building more roads. The researchers note that increasing road infrastructure can be counter-productive as it reduces driving costs which can induce more traffic. ITS, on the other hand, can simultaneously manage both road supply and traffic demand.

Commenting on the findings, Dr. Cheng from the Information Systems and Innovation Group at LSE’s Department of Management said:  “Over the years, governments have made major investments in road expansion but these have not been shown to be very effective in mitigating traffic congestion.

“Our findings demonstrate the important role IT can play in this area. Not only can technology help save money and time for individuals and governments, it can also enhance environmental sustainability and improve quality of life.”

Dr. Cheng adds, “While the research context is the United States, the implications of this study can be extrapolated to modern cities across the globe, especially big cities, that face such a difficult conundrum of traffic congestion. For instance, cosmopolitans like London have limited land area for additional road expansion; therefore, technology is the key to effective traffic management”.

Behind the article

For copy of the paper, please visit Information Systems Research.

For more information, please contact Dr. Cheng on: