Transit Tuesdays: The tech wizards who hope to defeat traffic gridlock

Will the traffic congestion and gridlock we've become accustomed to remain viable over the next several decades? Not likely, and people have been scrambling for solutions, from HOV lanes to car-sharing to bike-sharing to more Metro lines. The only response even resembling an answer involves how fast and efficiently and safely our computers can assume the job of driver and communicator. Smart telematics technology will, people hope and predict, let cars communicate with one another better. Bill Ford has predicted how this technology will unfold over the next half century and beyond in a TED talk, which others have echoed. Robots will potentially take the wheel one day. In the past, I've wondered at the cultural effects of replacing human drivers with automated robot technology.


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As anyone traveling in the D.C. metro region knows, our traffic has taken a toll on our commutes and in devastating ways. Transit features, from bicycle commuting to Metro, help. Remember how a WMATA official recently alluded to the research that without a Metro system, the D.C. region would have required a second Beltway? WTOP once offered rush-hour traffic reports; now those reports run 24 hours a day. D.C. officials are well aware of how our region will expand in the coming decades and some of the ways we should potentially react, as we saw at the recent Rail~Volution transportation conference. But is there any big fix to our traffic problem?

Here, according to a recent Washingtonian feature that addressed the topic, is what's perhaps our best bet:

I ask Pack whether he thinks there’s a technological solution to traffic congestion.

“Oh, sure,” he says. “Completely automated cars that take the driver out of the equation, communicate with one another, and can travel at high speeds within six inches of one another.”

It’s a cool idea. Not even the Jetsons had cars like that, but with wireless, autopilot, and GPS technologies it seems doable. You could imagine our existing roadways being able to handle huge volumes of traffic, incident-free, if only the cars—not impulsive, distracted, unpredictable humanoids—were doing the driving.

By now, I half expect Pack to say, “Do you want to see one? We’re building a car like that right next door.” But he doesn’t—though he does mention that Google is experimenting with an automatic car. I ask how long before we can all stop driving and let the cars do the work. “Oh, a while,” he says. “Maybe 30 years.”

I've alluded to these problems at the TBD On Foot blog for awhile now. The long, probing article in the November Washingtonian investigates how our traffic future looks from the seat of today's transportation planners and we receive various speculations as well as various looks at how research is coming along now in 2011. He goes into universities and into research labs in search of the best wisdom — the tech wizards who will assure us that everything will be okay. Most of today's thinkers acknowledge the role that GPS and automated technology should probably play further down the line. One person suggests adding a tax to all roads. Such a pricing system would potentially result in fewer cars and plentiful revenue to the tune of billions. This week the Virginia Transportation Secretary alluded to the role that telework might play in reducing traffic congestion as the D.C. metro region expands.

Thousands of words in Tim Zimmerman's "Can Washington Handle 30 More Years of Terrible Traffic?" are devoted to the problem of traffic congestion yet the most telling line is perhaps the most frustrating and least conclusive:

"It seems unlikely that Washington can endure 30 more years of traffic hell while waiting for the Google car or some other miracle." Yes, it does seem rather unlikely. He's right.

Elsewhere in the realms of transportation, urbanism, and real estate...

The Meridian at Mount Vernon Triangle is nearly done: D.C. Curbed relays the news that the 390-unit building will start leasing spots for the first quarter of 2012. What I find most promising is the note that there will be four parking spaces for charging electric cars. That's a smart start.

The best transportation headline the Post has run in a long time: "Amorous deer are a danger for drivers." This week deer also posed an obstacle for Metro workers, we learned from The Examiner. I've been curious about this issue in the past.

A new market comes to Brookland: NBC Washington reports on the debut of the Monroe Street Market last week. It's a "combination of residential, retail and community space along five city blocks" that "will ultimately house more than 700 apartments, 45 townhomes, more than 80,000 square feet of street-level retail, 15,000 square feet of studio space for artists, a 3,000 square foot community center and 850 parking spaces." DCmud includes thoughts and photos on what the transit-oriented development's introduction signifies.

The history of a well-trafficked transit website: was born in 1996 and has gone through many incarnations in its 15 years, as I discussed this past week.

"What's the 311?" D.C.'s city services Twitter account has become obsessed with the phrase so far in its first couple hundred tweets.

Can a hotel be too tall? Of course ... especially considering D.C. is fine with judging that a club full of naked women isn't "sexually oriented." These are our real estate and zoning questions in the District, folks.

Suicide prevention barriers come to Mexico City: The Metro in D.F. will have new barriers for security reasons, Atlantic Cities reports. Should more transit systems consider measures like this?

The Old Market Square stands again: The Anacostia space, formerly known as Logan Square, has been restored and was celebrated on November 9. See photos of the event courtesy of the District Department of Transportation.

With 1,000 square feet, don't even think about stretching: " reported that the median size of homes for sale in Washington, D.C., was the smallest in the country that month, at 1,000 square feet. The nation's capital was also the only area to post a median two bedrooms for the typical home -- every state in the top 10 posted a median three bedrooms." Such a crammed reality can't be helping the traffic and commute problems I wrote about above.

Zipcar and DDOT haven't been so friendly in the last year: The source of contention? The District's 80+ curbside parking spaces, which they created in the last 6 years to help foster our city's car-sharing. Here are some of the tense exchanges from the last year.

Don't give up on home ownership yet. Emily Badger offers a touching story of what home ownership can still mean in what's becoming, some argue, a rentership society. "We want to grow herbs outdoors and shop in the heavy-duty hardware store aisles and change the color of our living room. We want to make irreversible choices about wall fixtures and rash decisions at the animal shelter."

Read more daily transportation news at TBD On Foot.

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