By Joan Lowy and Justin Pritchard, June 27, 2015
In this Wednesday, May 20, 2015 photo, traffic slowly moves along the 101 Freeway during afternoon rush hour in Los Angeles. Traffic congestion is projected to become significantly worse and more widespread without big changes in how people and products get around. The possible solutions are many, but none is easy or cheap.
The problem is clear: Traffic congestion will become significantly worse and more widespread without big changes in how people and products get around.
Build more roads. Build more public transit. Rely on new technology. The possible solutions are many, but none is easy or cheap.
A few ways to ease the nation's gridlock:
PUBLIC TRANSIT RENAISSANCE
Ridership on public buses, trains and subways has reached its highest level nationally since the 1950s, and transit boosters cite this as evidence that expanded service and routes is a good investment.
The nation's driving capital, Los Angeles, is making a multibillion-dollar investment in building or extending five rail lines. Transit advocates say that should be a model: If LA can do it, any region can.
Skeptics point out that the record ridership still translates into just a fraction of all trips people take. They also make a bang-for-the-buck argument, saying big-ticket transit projects just don't make enough of a difference to justify their cost.
TOLLS ARE 'HOT'
Driving is expected to remain the primary means of travel for most Americans. But finding the money to maintain aging highways, much less build more lanes, is increasingly difficult.
To help fund new construction, the Obama administration has proposed letting states toll federal interstates. That's been prohibited since the interstate system was launched in 1956, except for a few exceptions, including highways that already had tolls. Congress would have to approve the change.
DUMB CARS, MEET SMART CARS
New vehicles will increasingly be "smart cars," equipped with wireless technology that lets them share how fast they're going, their direction, whether they're braking and whether an accident just happened ahead. These rolling networks could relay information to specially equipped traffic signals and other "smart infrastructure," which in turn would be connected to traffic-management centers.
Eventually, smart cars and trucks will be able to form tight "platoons" of eight to 25 vehicles, all electronically talking so they can closely follow each other without crashing.
The ultimate smart car won't even need a driver. "Self-driving" vehicles hold the potential to provide new mobility for the aged and the disabled, and reduce the demand for parking because they could be summoned by other users.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, these self-driving cars of the future are an increasingly common sight. Nearly 80 prototypes have permission from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test their skills on public roads, although a person must sit behind the wheel in case the on-board computers and sensors make a mistake.
Advocates say the cars will be able to drive more closely together, as well as avoid the accidents that can snarl traffic for miles.
While some Silicon Valley companies want to see these cars proliferate in the next few years, traditional automakers are taking an incremental approach by adding features such as automatic braking or lane-keeping on newer models.
IN TECHNOLOGY WE TRUST
Traffic smartphone apps such as Waze suggest the most efficient route from A to B, adjusting along the way based on real-time speed and traffic information from other users.
Dozens of transit agencies have apps that offer real-time travel information. Boston's public schools have experimented with an app that tracks how soon the school bus will arrive so parents who don't want their kids to wait in the cold too long can time drop-offs rather than opting for a drive all the way to school.
If package-delivery drones like those proposed by Amazon ever get off the ground, they hold the potential to decrease the number of truck trips on city and suburban streets.