Traffic Control System


As the population of the United States dramatically increases and the number of vehicles on the nation’s roads and highways skyrockets, new methods of traffic control and organization have become necessary, by utilizing new methods of transportation or by revising the current system. In the past 15 years, the number of vehicles on American roads has increased 41.9%, the number of licensed drivers has increased 29.3%, but the size of the general population has only risen 15.9% (Clark 387-404). Between the years 1975 and 1985, the number of miles driven by Americans rose 34.

6%, but the number of miles of roads increased by only 4.4% (Doan 64).

An enormous cost to society

Cars and other vehicles are an enormous cost to society, costing between $300 billion and $700 billion per year. These expenses are caused mainly by traffic accidents, traffic jams, and the environmental hazards created by the large number of vehicles on the road. Traffic accidents account for one of the major reasons that the current techniques of traffic control need revision.

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Traffic jams, along with broken cars and the lack of alternate routes, account for one half of the traffic congestion in the United States (Clark 387-404). Although the number of traffic accidents in the United States has slowly decreased over the past several years, it is still alarmingly high. In 1990, approximately 7 deaths occurred for every 10,000 people in the United States due to traffic accidents (Wallich 14). In addition, traffic jams also demonstrate the need for better methods of traffic management. Due to both the increase of women in the work force and the expansion of businesses to the suburbs, traffic jams have increased dramatically over the past few years (Koepp 55).

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As a consequence of traffic jams, the American population was delayed 722 million hours in 1985 (55), costing the average citizen approximately $800 (Doan 64). In 1984, drivers, while waiting in their cars during traffic jams, used three billion gallons of gasoline (Koepp 55). This figure represents four percent of the total amount of gasoline used during that year (55). Highways themselves cause a large number of traffic jams in America today. Of the 3.88 million miles of roads in the United States, 92% of them were built before 1960 (Koepp 54). The government has failed to increase the number of roads and highways proportional to the extraordinary increase of vehicles on the road.

Los Angeles

On major highways in Los Angeles, the most congested city in the United States, the average highway speed is 37 miles per hour, and is expected to drop to 17 miles per hour by the year 2000 (Doan 65). Problems with traffic congestion arise not only in the United States but also in Europe. In the spring of 1992 on the Nuremberg-Berlin motorway, a 70 kilometer traffic jam occurred during a holiday weekend (“Jam tomorrow” S15-S17). At a standstill for up to 18 hours, many drivers fell asleep and had to be awakened by police officers when the traffic jam began to disperse (S15-S17). Hazards to the environment also prove the necessity for more worthwhile methods of traffic administration. As many more vehicles make use of United States roads, the amount of poisonous hydrocarbons released into the atmosphere steadily increases. On the average, one out of every four Americans has problems breathing during the peak summer months due to the excess of smog in the atmosphere (Carpender 69).

Studies have shown that automobiles produce the majority of this smog (69). This dramatic increase exists as one of the major reasons for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, the same year that the Clean Air Act passed through Congress (Clark 387-404). As the number of automobiles kept increasing, the emissions standards became more rigid in 1980, especially in California (387-404). Governments even passed laws requiring large businesses to provide better and more environmentally safe methods of transportation for their employees (387-404). Noise pollution from the large number of automobiles on the road also contributes to the devastation of the environment. While traveling on the nation’s many expressways, one cannot avoid seeing large, unsightly sound barriers that are constructed between busy highways and large housing developments.

Also, complaints about noise pollution have increased 390% since 1978 (“Noisy Parkers” 63). Traffic problems also contribute to economic problems in today’s society. In 1987, transportation in the United States cost a total of $792 billion (Koepp 55). This figure represents 17.6% of the gross national product, hence it is not difficult to see that transportation has a major effect on economics (55). Despite the many problems that exist with the present systems of transportation and traffic control, numerous solutions exist that provide both efficiency and effectiveness. These include formulating new methods of transportation, developing better traffic signaling and controlling equipment, and utilizing better techniques of highway design and construction. Designing new types of transit provides one of the most obvious and efficient approaches of improving traffic management.

Mass rail transit

In today’s society, mass rail transit exists as one of the most efficient and quickly developing techniques of enhancing the current transportation system. Many moderate to large sized cities currently offer some kind of rail transit, whether it be a subway or elevated system, and most of them are well-used. In the San Francisco area, for example, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, opened in 1972, handles approximately 29,000 passengers every day (Rauber 45-47). During natural disasters, use of rail transportation systems usually increases enormously, as rails are much easier to repair than roads (Clark 387-404). After the Los Angeles earthquake in January 1994, use of the city’s rail system, Metrolink, increased from 900 passengers per day to 22,000 passengers per day (387-404). Rail transit systems do have their downfalls, however.

New York’s subway, commonly called the “electric subway” by many of its riders, is considered to be a terrible and unsafe form of transportation, mostly due to poor planning by the city (Bedard 22). Also, many prospective rail transit users have claimed that they would prefer not to use rail transit if they had to walk more than a half-mile to reach the station (Clark 387-404). Many residents discourage the construction of more stations as they do not want to see their neighborhoods change due to the need for a rail station (387-404). On the other side of the spectrum, however, many new and exciting forms of technologically advanced rail transit are currently in development.

The MAGnetic LEVitation train

A MAGLEV train, or MAGnetic LEVitation train, has recently been introduced into the transportation world (Koepp 60). Driven by powerful electromagnets, this train levitates several inches above the track (60). This reduction in friction allows the train to reach speeds up to 300 miles per hour (60). A 230 mile route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas was recently proposed for the MAGLEV train (60). This route would take approximately 70 minutes to cover, as opposed to five hours by automobile (60). In addition to rail transportation, buses represent not necessarily a new transportation method, but certainly one that can be taken advantage of and utilized to its fullest potential. One of the major advantages that buses have over rail transit is that buses can take their passengers wherever they want to go, and routes can easily be changed (Koepp 58). However, there is a price to pay for this: many passengers claim that they will use bus service only if the nearest station is less than a quarter-mile from their homes (Clark 387-404).

Houston, Texas

Houston, Texas provides an excellent example of an efficient bus system in action. The Houston bus service used to be considered terrible (Koepp 57). The buses were late almost 50% of the time, and almost always needed repairs (57). In 1978, the voters approved a one percent tax increase to improve bus transportation (57). As a result of this vote, $790 million was spent to improve the city’s bus transportation (57). Almost 800 new buses were purchased, 20 park-and ride lots were constructed, 750 sheltered bus stops were built, and five maintenance shops were constructed (57). In the future, the city plans to keep making improvements, including increasing the number of bus express lanes on the highways (57).

The American Public Transit Association ranked Houston as the city with the safest bus system in the entire United States (57). Carpooling, commonly called ridesharing, provides another alternative to the use of the automobile. Many cities and businesses have made ridesharing a more desirable form of transportation over the past few years. The 3M Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota furnishes an impressive example of successful ridesharing use (Clark 387-404). Employees sign up as passengers, drivers, or both, and pay a small monthly fee for the non-profit service. (387-404). The company offers a cash incentive for those employees who use the carpooling program (387-404).

The high-occupancy vehicle (HOV)

The use of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes has increased dramatically in recent years (Clark 387-404). HOV lanes are special lanes on highways reserved for high-occupancy vehicles only (387-404). Typically, a vehicle must be carrying at least two to four passengers, depending on location, to use HOV lanes (387-404). The use of HOV lanes is restricted by small radio transmitters placed in the carpooling vehicles (387-404). When any vehicle enters a HOV lane, a transmitter above the lane scans for a receiver in the automobile (387-404). If the system detects one, the vehicle is allowed to enter the lane (387-404). If not, it alerts a nearby highway patrol officer to pull over the charlatan and ticket him (387-404). In 1990, 40 HOV lanes covered 332 miles in 20 cities in the United States (387-404). Many cities and states are promoting ridesharing by increasing taxes and fees for those drivers who drive solo (Bedard 23).

However, a disadvantage to carpooling exists: those who participate must arrive and depart from work at the same times every day, a task not easy to accomplish in today’s fast-paced society (Clark 387-404). Finally, bicycle transportation furnishes both a clean and energy-efficient form of transit. With the exception of speed, bicycles provide one of the most efficient forms of transportation in existence today. Bicycles produce no poisonous fumes, they provide exercise, and, if the proper safety equipment is used, they are very safe forms of transportation. Today, only about 27.5% of bicycle owners actually use them regularly, and bicyclists make up only one to three percent of the total number of commuters in the United States (Clark 387-404). However, this figure could soon rise to 5-15% if the number of bicyclist commuters keeps increasing (387-404).

Many proponents of bicycle use have predicted that if cities were completely car-free, the cost of living would decrease 50-80%, since no expensive buying, parking, insuring, and maintaining of an automobile would be required (“Jam tomorrow” S15-S17). Many governments, both in the United States and overseas, have formed systems to promote the use of bicycles over automobiles. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), formed in 1991, gives grants to support the use of transportation methods other than roads, such as pedestrian and rail transit (Clark 387-404). Many European countries have also attempted to support bicycle transportation, by constructing bicycle-dedicated lanes near major roadways (Knight 82-83). Several cons to using bicycle transportation exist, however.

Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems (IVHS)

Bicycles can be somewhat dangerous, physically demanding, and not suitable for use in bad weather (Clark 387-404). In addition to adopting new methods of transit, modifying the current techniques of traffic control exists as another solution to the traffic congestion problem. One way to improve the current methods of transit is by optimizing better traffic signaling and controlling equipment. Created in 1990 by the United States Department of Transportation, Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems (IVHS) oversees the development of advanced transportation management systems and advanced traveler information systems which monitor traffic and ease congestion (Zygmont 18). The IVHS is currently working on three stages of development for the new advanced highway control systems (Pennisi 184-186). Cars will first begin to contain warning and assistance devices which simply aid the driver (184-186). Next, automobiles will have the ability to control themselves on certain restricted-access highways (184-186).

Finally, vehicles will have the capability to operate themselves on all roads (184-186). Several “smart” highway systems currently exist which are paving the way for even more evolved systems to be developed and for the advancement of the three stages of the IVHS. The SmartSonic Traffic Control Surveillance System, originally developed by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) for the Navy to use as a sub-detection system, is now in the process of being sold to the government for use as a highway control system (Marbach 95). This system detects special signals emitting from vehicles, then determines the type of vehicle. This information is then used to open special lanes, divert traffic, and limit access at entrance ramps (95). Project Pathfinder, formulated by General Motors and the Federal Highway Administration in Southern California, would make use of a two-way radio network and an in-car mapping system (Therrien 84). No dominant technology has been decided upon yet (84). Possible methods include sensors attached to the vehicles’ wheels, satellite signals, synthesized voice, or radio and infrared waves (84).

Many experts have predicted that if Project Pathfinder was initiated successfully, traffic congestion would drop 20-30% if 40% of the vehicles were equipped (84). The price of the equipment for each automobile is expected to cost $500-$700, and the entire mapping system will probably cost about $35 billion to construct (84). The Traffic Master system, currently in use in England, consists of a pager with a small display in each vehicle (Pennisi 184-186). Sensors in and around London measure speeds and use this data to report traffic information to the pagers (184-186). The Travtek system not only features a color display which indicates the locations of traffic jams, such as the Traffic Master system, but also shows the locations of restaurants, hotels, and other facilities (Pennisi 184-186). This system also boasts a guidance mechanism consisting of magnets which detect when the car begins to drift out of its lane and warn the driver (184-186). In addition to the several major “smart” highway systems, an abundance of smaller utilities which aid drivers is available. The Roaddirector pager, designed to help drivers avoid traffic, consists of a small pager which is updated every four minutes (Munk 20-21).

The cost of the system is $9.95 per month, and for an extra $1.75 per call, alternate routes are provided (20-21). Autotalk, Inc., has recently introduced a system which gives 17 hour-a-day traffic reports to those who purchase special $125 receivers (20-21). Although not instituted yet, Cue Paging Corp. hopes to develop a traffic data system by which traffic information can be picked up by Sharp Wizard personal organizers and laptop computers (20-21). Although many of the “smart” highways systems that have recently been developed may seem like the answer to traffic congestion, many disadvantages exist associated with their use. As with most new technology, these new highway systems are terrifically expensive. The IVHS predicts that the testing and construction of a very advanced vehicle control system will cost approximately $290 billion (Zygmont 18).

The system will monitor all vehicles at all times, which could be considered a breach of civil liberties (Clark 387-404). Also, like any computer, the possibility exists that hackers could infiltrate the system and wreak havoc on the computers (Yates 19). If the system should malfunction for some reason, this could create more gridlock or even accidents (19). In addition, the fact that drivers would be watching video monitors instead of the road could lead to possible accidents (19). Finally, common traffic disruptions, such as a flat tire, could interfere with the computer system and cause confusion to many other drivers (19). Another way to revise the current system of traffic control is by reforming the way in which tolls are instituted and collected.

Improving the toll system

One of the most effective and advancing methods of improving the toll system is by collecting tolls electronically. Although it may seem quite difficult, automatic toll collection is technologically simple (Rauber 45-47). Electronic sensors in the roadway scan tags on each car and automatically charge the driver’s bank account (45-47). Tested in Hong-Kong, this system proved to be 99.7% accurate (45-47). Electronic toll collection systems have been instituted in Oklahoma and Florida and have proved their efficiency (Zygmont 18). In addition to electronic toll collection, a system called congestion pricing has recently been developed in the field of toll collection (Rauber 45-47). Congestion pricing is a system of tolls which vary according to the amount of traffic on the road (45-47). The more traffic congesting the roads, the higher the price of the tolls (45-47).

A congestion pricing procedure can be established using either manual or automatic methods (45-47). If an effective system of congestion pricing was instituted, peak hour traffic would be expected to drop 10-25% (45-47). Congestion pricing is an advantageous technique of controlling traffic because it reduces congestion, raises economic productivity, decreases pollution levels, preserves drivers’ freedom of choice, saves the government from expensive construction costs, and provides revenues (Rauber 45-47). However, despite the plethora of advantages of congestion pricing, a few disadvantages exist which could lead to its downfall. The burden of congestion pricing would fall on lower-class citizens, who may have to wait until peak traffic periods conclude before they can afford to pay the toll (Rauber 45-47). Also, systems of congestion pricing may be difficult to pass through Congress (45-47). A congestion pricing demonstration project is currently planned for the Bay Bridge in the San Francisco area (Rauber 45-47).

Drivers currently pay one dollar to cross the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco (45-47). The bridge tolls may rise, however, to three or four dollars during morning rush hours (45-47). Experts have theorized that this will give drivers an incentive to use other methods of transportation (45-47). Several smaller but quite effective systems of tolls have also been established which help to ease the traffic congestion problem. The DRIVE program consists of a special electronic meter which is fitted into each vehicle (Mogridge 49). The driver is charged extra if he consumes too much time on the highways and finding a place to park (49). Also, a system of urban tolls has also been instituted in some cities (49). This plan would allow vehicles to enter the city based on their license plate numbers (49). Although this project failed in London, it proved quite effective in Singapore, demonstrating its effectiveness and the vigor of new practices of toll collection in general (49).

The techniques of highway development and construction

Using better techniques of highway development and construction also accounts for part of the effort to modify current traffic control methods. Although it may seem like the obvious solution, simply building more roads and highways is not the answer (Koepp 57). On numerous occasions, it has been proven that when new roads and lanes are constructed, they simply fill up to capacity again (Rauber 45-47). For example, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, built in 1972, currently handles 29,000 passengers per day, but roads and highways around the city of San Francisco are still badly congested (45-47). Building new highways also incurs many expensive costs (Koepp 57). The most efficient solution is the rebuilding of existing highways, since 62% of United States highways need repairs (57). Even though simple road building may just encourage more gridlock, it can also prove to be an efficient solution to traffic congestion if roads are designed with the thought of gridlock reduction in mind.

In the 1970’s in Atlanta, Georgia, traffic on I-75 and I-85 was horrendous (Koepp 54). Jammed with 100,000 cars every day, it quickly became evident that a solution was needed (54). In 1978, Atlanta’s voters passed a $1.4 billion plan to “free the freeways” (54). This resulted in the “Spaghetti Junction”, a large highway system of up to 10 lanes and capable of handling up to four times the volume of the old system (54). In Houston, Texas, the recently developed “contraflow” lane easily switches traffic from one direction to another, reducing traffic congestion in the process (Doan 64).

Many new technological developments in highway construction have recently been introduced which help to ease gridlock. A material called Kynar, a special polymer piezoelectric film, generates electric signals when run over by vehicles (Amato 79). Although this product is not currently in use yet, the possibilities for its use are endless (79). It could be used to measure speeds, count vehicles, weigh trucks in motion, and an abundance of other previously time-consuming activities (79). The advancing field of materials like Kynar dramatically aids the reduction of traffic congestion. Therefore, due to the dramatic increase of licensed drivers in the United States and the minuscule increase of roads and highways, the necessity has arisen for new and improved methods of traffic control and management to handle this large increase in traffic.


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  15. Wallich, Paul. “Grim Statistics.” Scientific American November 1993: 14.
  16. Yates, Brock. “Just what we need. Automatic Roads.” Car and Driver February 1989: 19.
  17. Zygmont, Jeffrey. “Intelligent Highways.” Omni January 1992: 18.

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Traffic Control System

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