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An Easy Way to Reduce Traffic Congestion?

The holidays are here, so everybody knows what that means: Last-minute gift-buying, restless children, and sitting in traffic while shuttling back-and-forth between your parents' house and your in-laws'. There isn't much we can do about the first two problems, but scientists are trying to figure out how to fix the last one.

In a new traffic study, researchers for the first time used cell phone data to track the locations of drivers in Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area. Typically, traffic studies rely on driver diaries, but the new method allowed for the collection of immense quantities of data, data which is far more accurate. By using cell phone data, they could pinpoint "major driver sources" (MDSs) and their relationship to traffic flow. 

What the researchers found surprised them. Most traffic congestion is due to just a handful of MDSs, which have a much higher than average commute time.

The authors modeled what would happen if traffic was reduced from 0.1% to 1%. They specifically focused on reducing traffic from the handful of MDSs with the greatest congestion. (In Boston, that was 15 MDSs; in the Bay Area, 12 MDSs.) The model predicted that targeting just these handful of sites would cause a major reduction in congestion and travel time.

It should be pointed out that in order to achieve such a reduction in congestion and travel time, the authors reduced traffic from the major MDSs anywhere from 2.5% to 25% in Boston and 2.7% to 27% in the Bay Area. That's a lot of cars to reduce. Most likely, tolling these high congestion MDSs would be the best way to get drivers out of their cars, but that's rarely a popular solution.

And which cities could benefit the most from this research? Here's a list of American cities with the worst traffic:

1. Honolulu
2. Los Angeles
3. San Francisco
4. New York City
5. Bridgeport, CT
6. Washington, DC
7. Seattle
8. Austin
9. Boston
10. Chicago

Perhaps city planners in these cities should take note of this study.

Source: Pu Wang, Timothy Hunter, Alexandre M. Bayen, Katja Schechtner & Marta C. Gonz├ílez. "Understanding Road Usage Patterns in Urban Areas." Scientific Reports 2, Article number: 1001 doi:10.1038/srep01001

(Image: Traffic via Shutterstock
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