Summary List Placement
“What is the solution to the problem of traffic jams?” a Turkish journalist asked Nick Cohn, senior product manager at TomTom, at the end of 2019. His response, “We can’t keep building extra lanes endlessly; that’s not a long-term solution.”
Then he adds, “We need sustainable alternatives for transporting large groups of people, and we need to spread the traffic more.”
The past year shows that these solutions do indeed work to combat congestion. In 2020, there was a 19% reduction in congestion worldwide, according to the new TomTom Traffic Index. “In terms of mobility, 2020 has been one big experiment,” says Gijs Peters, data scientist and traffic expert at TomTom.
Suddenly there was this surreal image of nearly empty roads during rush hours. In Europe, congestion levels dropped by 24%, and in North America, numbers decreased by 40%. Three hundred eighty-seven cities worldwide reported less congestion than in 2019. In the second week of April, there were 414 cities in 57 countries where traffic jams were lower than the year before — the biggest drop of the year.
The UK also saw significantly less traffic on the road. Edinburgh recorded the largest decrease, with 32% less congestion in 2020. London quickly followed with a 31% decrease. In total, there were 97 days on which traffic jams were shorter than in the previous year. In April, this resulted in the largest decrease in the morning and evening rush hours — 78 and 81% less than April 2019.
What do these figures mean for the future of mobility? Carlo van de Weijer, director of smart mobility at Eindhoven University of Technology, sees 2020 mainly as an acceleration of developments that would otherwise have taken place only in the next 20 years. “Working from home is suddenly more accepted; we have started to look at mobility differently.”
The lack of space
This provides room for more developments that have been playing below the surface for some time. One of the mobility issues on which Van de Weijer advises governments and companies is the reallocation of space for traffic.
“The limited space that every mode of transport wants to make use of is, in my opinion, the mobility problem of the future.” Because while pedestrians and cyclists claimed the streets during the pandemic, the car as an individual modality only became more popular. “So, how do you distribute the space as well as possible?”
It’s a question many local politicians are pondering. It even goes so far in Paris that mayor Anne Hidalgo announced to set aside 250 million euros. The plan: To turn the Champs-Élysées into an “extraordinary garden” by 2024. But in the UK, too, they must work out how the space will be used.
Van de Weijer expects 2020 to have a major impact on the way the government allocates budgets. “How much money are you going to spend on extra lanes if there are fewer cars driving in the rush hour? And how much money are you going to spend on fighting traffic jams, now that you know that flexible working hours offer a ‘free’ solution?”
Another area where he expects to see major differences is public transport. “The government spends a lot of money getting people on public transport. That investment was always worth it because it was safer, cleaner, and cheaper than going by car. Moreover, you could work there.” But all those benefits are being overtaken by the advance of the ever cleaner, cheaper, safer, and more comfortable car.
The self-driving car has many advantages, according to Van de Weijer. “The car can prevent accidents and take over the boring parts of your journey, for example, driving in traffic jams. Then you solve the traffic jam problem because you can do something else when you’re stuck in traffic.”
Peters also thinks that the self-driving car will play a more prominent role in the street scene within five years. “For the car industry, the combination of artificial intelligence and time management in cars is a huge USP. Cars help drivers make better decisions, know how the traffic lights behave, and thus choose the fastest route. Your car takes into account the capacity of the city.”
Because self-driving or not, cars in the city remain a pain point. “Some people think that we won’t need parking spaces anymore because cars will act as a kind of taxi and then drive away again. But I don’t really see that happening.”
Van de Weijer sees the benefit of hiding cars, especially with parking garages, where necessary on the edges of cities combined with public transport. “Banning the car completely from the city is throwing out the good with the bad.”
Behavior for the future
According to Peters, the most important question for the future is how we are going to maintain the positive mobility figures of 2020 when there are no more lockdowns. “Just look at Taiwan, an island that was hardly affected by COVID-19. There was not a single day in 2020 that there were fewer traffic jams than the year before.”
It is, therefore, necessary to take measures now to prevent future traffic jams. Those measures come from different angles, Peters stresses. “Employers can, for example, offer flexible working hours, so that not everyone has to be in the office at the same time.”
The same applies to public transport, adds Van de Weijer. “The whole capacity problem there only lasts a few hours in the morning, so that could be spread out much better. That makes more train tracks and new equipment unnecessary for the time being.”
But local politicians also play an important role. It is up to them to provide sufficient alternative means of transport so that the car is less attractive in some areas. “Public transport, but also good infrastructure for cyclists, for example,” Peters says. “There are now various trends that we have been hammering on for years as a solution. It is now up to us to facilitate this behavior as best we can so that the positive developments continue.”