Technology can help fix congestion — if it doesn’t make it worse
The federal Liberal government has spent billions of dollars over the past four years — and promised billions more — to get people and goods moving faster. Has it worked? The Financial Post spoke with experts from industry, academia and government over the past six months about the costs of congestion and how to mitigate its burden on individuals and businesses. In the finale of this three-part series, we focus on the role technology could play.
Automation optimists envision a commuter utopia where urbanites whip around in shared, electric-powered, driver-less pods that travel close together in sync with self-driving taxis and minibuses, all connected to smart city infrastructure, potentially eliminating millions of private cars that are parked about 95 per cent of the time anyway.
Such a shift to automated vehicles could reduce congestion costs in Toronto by $2.7 billion, according to a 2015 report by the University of Toronto Transportation Research Institute that was commissioned by the city. The key is improving the communication between vehicles and infrastructure, thereby reducing bottlenecks, eliminating most traffic accidents and better adapting signals to account for weather or construction.
Optimism levels vary, of course, and disagreements abound over what automated transportation systems will look like, how long the technology will take to deploy at a mass scale — it will likely take 20 years to introduce fully automated vehicles that make it okay for drivers to literally sleep at the wheel — and whether automation will even mitigate congestion in the end.
But as governments and industry titans prepare for more automation down the road, technology has already reshaped traffic by enabling access to real-time data and ride-sharing business models. And there are hints of what’s to come by exploring the investments being made in automation and ride-hailing apps, as well as by looking at an all-in-one transportation app called Whim already in place in Helsinki, and the intelligent transportation management systems in cities such as Toronto.
“I don’t think any organization has a full crystal ball on exactly how autonomous vehicles will reshape transportation as a network,” said Yvonne Rene de Cotret, public sector transportation leader and co-lead of future mobility at Deloitte Canada. “The important thing is understanding the opportunity they pose for how they get integrated into our current transportation network.”
Planning for that future, at least, is well underway. In 2017, BlackBerry Ltd.’s self-driving Lincoln took a test drive on the streets of Ottawa’s suburbs in a Canadian first to showcase the Waterloo, Ont.-based company’s QNX operating system.
Ontario has been home to numerous pilot projects since then, while Montreal is testing an automated minibus (it travels on a fixed route at 15 km/h). In Richmond, B.C., the city paved the way for a private company to test same-day delivery services using automated vehicles, with the idea that cars could eventually circle the block while a driver drops off a package instead of finding a parking spot.
Automation is also already taking hold in the goods movement sector where time is money and efficiency is king. For example, Canadian National Railway Co. expects to save $400 million over the next three years due to an automated inspection system that can examine 120 cars in the time it takes a human to check just one.
On the port side, GCT Terminals, Canada’s largest container terminal, has spent $300 million on highly automated cranes that have shaved about a day off the time it takes containers to get from a ship onto a train.
In trucking, an industry struggling to find enough long-haul drivers, companies are testing platoons of trucks where one driver leads a self-driving platoon down a highway in formation, cutting down on aerodynamic drag and fuel. Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who has been in such a platoon on a test range, said in an interview last month he sees automation as a way to both improve flow and cut carbon footprints.
Solving commuter congestion is trickier, given it requires accounting for the personal choices made by 15.8 million Canadians daily. But major companies are throwing billions of dollars at the engineering and artificial intelligence required to power new technology that could affect society in unpredictable ways, much like how ubiquitous mobile connectivity disrupted transportation by enabling ride-hailing companies such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc.
Deep-pocketed tech companies such as Alphabet Inc., Apple Inc. and Uber, carmakers Volkswagen AG, Daimler AG, Ford Motor Co., Tesla Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp., and even software companies like BlackBerry are all vying to be part of the shift.
Yet there are red flags poking holes in this low-congestion, low-emissions dream.
Automated vehicles could increase the demand for car travel from young people, seniors and people with disabilities who can’t currently drive, as well as from workers who prefer the privacy and convenience of car travel, especially if it’s faster and safer. When it comes down to it, 75 people in a bus will still take up less room on the streets than 75 private vehicles, even if they are automated and electrified.
The popularity of ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft show that technology often has unplanned impacts on congestion. The two companies originally pitched their services as a way to reduce congestion by making it less necessary for people to own private vehicles, but recent data indicates otherwise, even according to an August report commissioned by the two companies.
In the study, based on data from six U.S. cities, transportation consultancy Fehr & Peers found that ride-hailing companies add to traffic, particularly in downtown cores, even though private cars still make up the vast majority of the miles traveled.
Adding to the problem is that ride-hailing drivers cruise around without passengers as they wait for fares, a practice called “deadheading” that accounts for about one-third of the total miles travelled, according to the report, which sparked criticism about the apps from transportation experts.
“As Uber & Lyft add to city traffic, lose $billions, and undermine transit, we need to ask ourselves what transportation problems they solve. New data from (transportation network companies) show that they are convenient cabs, not the transportation revolution they promised,” Janette Sadik-Khan, a former commissioner at New York City’s department of transportation, tweeted in response to the report.
The report’s findings correspond with research released in June by Ryerson University’s Urban Analytics Institute. It found that private transportation companies such as Uber and Lyft are increasing traffic in Toronto.
There are red flags poking holes in this low-congestion, low-emissions dream
There are approximately 70,000 licensed drivers for these services in the city compared to about 5,000 taxi licences, the study found, adding that these services average 176,000 fare-paying trips every day. Nearly half of those passengers would have taken transit if ride-hailing apps weren’t an option, shifting about 20 million trips per year away from public transit, according to the research.
Uber and Lyft offer the same type of service, but not all ride-hailing apps solely focus on cars. For example, in Helsinki, an app called Whim approaches mobility more like a subscription service to all forms of transportation.
Whim, launched in fall 2016 by local startup MaaS Global Ltd., is an all-in-one app where people pay a monthly fee to travel by taxis, rental cars, public transit and bikes around the Finnish capital region, which has a population of about 1.1 million.
For 60 euros per month, users get unlimited transit and bike usage, and discounts on taxis and cars, while 499 euros a month buys unlimited usage on all forms of transportation. It’s expensive, sure, but arguably cheaper than car ownership.
Whim is often cited in discussions on the future of mobility, and its owner has raised money from major players including Toyota and Denso Corp., a global automotive components manufacturer in Japan. Still, critics question whether it could encourage more vehicle use and, therefore, congestion by making it easier to move by taxi or rental car.
Research conducted on behalf of Whim found that most users lean on public transit, and tend to use cars or bikes as a last-mile solution, industry speak for those last stretches to a final destination that aren’t well served by existing infrastructure.
Even though ride-hailing services appear in some cases to compete with transit, they have the potential to act as a complement by providing last-mile trips for people living in poorly served areas, Lina Kattan, civil engineering professor at the University of Calgary, said in an interview this spring.
Such areas are typically low density, where public transit ridership would be too little to justify big spending on projects. Funding these projects could get even harder in the future if automation and electrification expand, potentially reducing the parking fees and fuel taxes that help maintain today’s networks.
Ultimately, Kattan said, long-term solutions to congestion will involve rethinking the way we plan cities in order to increase density in such a way that puts residential, commercial and industrial land uses closer together so people don’t have to travel as far.
In the short term, she believes advances in traffic management systems such as intelligent signal operations could help mitigate congestion.
“Things are so complex in transportation because people respond to everything,” Kattan said.
Roger Browne knows that every decision made in his department can have an immediate impact on the roughly 2.7 million people who commute daily in the Greater Toronto Area.
Browne is the director of the City of Toronto’s Traffic Management Centre, which manages 2,300 traffic signals across the region. (Yes, he gets a lot of emails, both grateful and angry.)
The centre’s goals include reducing travel times across all types of transportation, ensuring consistent commute times and minimizing delays from construction or events. It also encourages people to walk, bike or take transit.
Browne believes smart-city infrastructure is one of the few silver bullets that could make a major dent in congestion, which has become an even bigger problem because the city is in the midst of a construction boom.
Toronto traffic operators already have remote access to traffic signals, so they can adjust them on the fly if an accident snarls a particular intersection, and the city recently upgraded its video system to digital from analogue to improve real-time changes. It also created a big data innovations team to analyze hot spots, so it can take action before the angry calls start pouring in about failed left-turn signals or flashing red lights.
“The system should be taking all that smart-city data, automatically getting the red flags of this is down, this is down, this is down and getting your crews out here, here, here and here,” Browne said.
He also sees the potential for open data to help city planners and developers decide what to build when, and what lanes can be closed without crippling traffic.
“There are all these building blocks that we’ve been putting together over the years,” Browne said. “Now we’re at that stage where through active traffic management, we connect them. It really, really becomes a powerful tool to battle congestion.”