How To Fix Traffic Congestion

10:30 AM, Mar 2, 2010   |    comments
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WASHINGTON, DC (CNN) -- Want to sit in less traffic? Save gas? Who doesn't!

Researchers say it's possible, and it could save you a whole lot more than a few minutes or a couple of gallons of gas.

The problem with traffic is not just that there is too much; it is that some people drive too fast, some too slow, some change lanes, some make turns. It all creates traffic jams, wasted fuel, and pollution.

Brian Park, a researcher at the University of Virginia, says we can do much better, even 30% better: "If you believe in simulations, then the research shows that."

The secret? Lights.

Park is combining detailed studies of traffic patterns, roadway obstructions, and the actual behavior of real drivers in selected areas to create computer programs to constantly adjust the traffic lights for rush hour density, special events, weather, and much more.

He says his model proves traffic stops and pollution can be pushed way down and fuel efficiency way up to save the nation's drivers a billion gallons of gas a year.

Haven't we been using timed lights to speed up traffic for decades? Yes, but often that's involved only crude calculations based on the number of cars and the speed limit.

At the University of Maryland's Center for Transportation Management, Phillip Tarnoff says even that's not being done well: "I think it's terrible."

Studies have found more than a third of cities and town have not adjusted the timing of their lights for more than 10 years, despite huge changes in population, housing, and business demands.

Tarnoff says properly times lights could reduce traffic delays by 20%, slash gas consumption by 10%, and cut emissions by 15%.

"These are not simulated benefits. They're not calculated benefits. They're actual benefits that have been measured," Tarnoff says.

However, researchers say in too many cases various government agencies controlling traffic lights just do not cooperate with each other, and political leaders seldom show much interest in such mundane housekeeping.  When they do, researchers say the results are resounding.

Plano, Texas retimed its roads, saving commuters more than 36 million stops at traffic lights and a million gallons of gas annually.  For the economy and the environment: real savings, real simple.

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