How have other countries dealt with traffic congestion?

There are many experimental efforts underway alongside some more old-fashioned approaches...

How have other countries dealt with traffic congestion?

Picture by: Philip Toscano/PA Archive/PA Images

Despite all the new roads, improvement works, public transport options and modern supports available, traffic congestion remains a significant concern in Ireland.

As part of our ‘Are We There Yet?’ week, commuters in cities across the country have highlighted their frustrations with the current situation. But it’s 2017: surely there are ways - even if they’re expensive or experimental - to tackle this seemingly perennial problem?

There are obvious solutions. New or expanded forms of public transport have been implemented in pretty much every major city around the world. Several Irish cities have seen success with public bike schemes. In some cases, fundamentally altering the flow of traffic at 'choke points' can be an expensive but necessary move to alleviate problems.

But what about the more novel, unusual and even controversial approaches to tackling congestion? Let’s take a look at how companies and other countries have tried to confront the issue….

Car-pooling and ride-sharing

Of all the ways to cut down on the amount of cars on the road, one of the most efficient solutions is also one of the simplest (and oldest). In the US particularly, various forms of ride-sharing have been in effect since the very early days of the commercial motor industry. It became a particularly popular practice during periods of fuel rationing - including during World War 2 and the 1973 oil crisis. In the US and in scattered other areas around the world, car-pool or 'high-occupancy vehicle' lanes are direct incentives for drivers to have more passengers on board by offering exclusive road space (comparable to bus lanes in Ireland).

The popularity and prominence of car-sharing has tended to fluctuate over the years, and there are varying degrees of the practice (from sharing a car with a roommate or family members to carpooling with strangers). However, the growth of the Internet and mobile communication has led to a fresh surge in popularity - not to mention James Corden making carpooling a pop cultural phenomenon again with the addition of some celebrity karaoke.

Several apps such as Waze Rider and RYDE have been released to take advantage of the ‘sharing economy’ - although have not quite taken off in quite the way other transport apps such as Uber have.

The benefits of fewer individual cars on the road should be obvious - as well as the potential for significant reductions in congestion, there are also definite environmental benefits. The co-founders of Lyft have gone as far as arguing in favour of charging drivers who do not carpool - a suggestion likely to meet with plenty of opposition if it ever moves towards implementation.

Other ride-sharing variants are popular in other cities. In Tehran, for example, ‘shared taxis’ are a popular mode of transport. Many taxi drivers travel along set routes, picking up and dropping off passengers as required.

Writing in The Guardian, Yara Elmjouie described Tehran's shared taxi system as ‘convenient, luxurious, and yet inexpensive’, suggesting that “once you get the hang of it, its absence will be sorely missed in many other major cities you travel to”. It’s hard to imagine such a culture taking off in Ireland, but it is one way of taking an existing mode of transport and making it more ‘efficient’.

Congestion charge

If you’re driving into a city centre, it’s likely your commuting bill is already rather sizeable - fuel, insurance, tax, parking and more all add to the considerable expense. Several cities have attempted to cut down on traffic by adding another financial disincentive on top of all that - the congestion charge.

In London, drivers have to pay an £11.50 (€13.50) daily charge if they drive within a designated city centre zone between 7am and 6pm, Monday to Friday. A similar ‘congestion tax’ is in place for Stockholm, with the charge varying throughout the day (peaking at around €3.24 during the morning & evening rush hours).

The effectiveness of such charges remain a source of debate. Transport for London figures noted that traffic levels had gone down by 10.2% in the ten years since the introduction of the charge - but journey times remained more or less the same.

In Stockholm, meanwhile, the initially controversial prospect has managed to gain widespread public and political support since charges were implemented on a permanent basis since 2007. The tax is also said to have contributed to an increase in sales of more environmentally friendly vehicles - for several years electric cars and vehicles that use ‘cleaner’ fuels were exempt from the charge.

Indeed, even without such explicit exemptions, one of the core motives behind a congestion charge is encouraging more commuters to use more environmentally-friendly and sustainable public transport over individual vehicles. Surely even some of the most dedicated motorists will eventually baulk at the expense of taking the car. Although an extra charge can also be a bit of a kick-in-the-teeth for those drivers who, for whatever reason, simply cannot avoid a city centre.

Ultimately, despite some degree of success in the cities that have introduced them, congestion charges are far from becoming the norm. There have been occasional calls for such a charge to be introduced in Dublin over the last decade or so, but there has not been much political momentum behind the idea here.

Using modern technology

With the rapid pace of technological improvement over the last two decades, it goes without saying that city planners have been toying with whole new ways of confronting congestion.

‘Smart motorways’ employ dynamic systems and monitoring - sometimes referred to as active traffic management (ATM) - to try and alleviate congestion. The systems can be used during times of heavy congestion or in the event an accident, and allow for the varying of speed limits or the opening of the hard shoulder to ease traffic flows (known as an 'all lanes running' system'). It is, in essence, a more systemic upgrade on the sort of electronic displays you see dotted around many Irish roads.

The UK has been a particular pioneer of smart motorways. While trials have so far shown reduced journey times and fewer accidents on smart motorways, there has been some political unease over plans to convert more hard shoulders into driving lanes.

Earlier this week, we took an in-depth look at autonomous or ‘driverless’ vehicles. Many companies are banking on such technology leading to notable improvements in the efficiency and safety of driving - widespread adoption of advanced automated vehicles will, in theory anyway, lead to shortened journey times and fewer accidents as a result of ‘human error’ being removed from the equation.

It’s worth noting that sometimes older technology can be a way forward, though. Cable cars have been around for decades, but in many cities they are acting as a viable alternative to ‘road-based solutions’. La Paz in Bolivia and Perugia in Italy are two of the cities to have introduced modern cable-based systems.

If you can’t beat traffic, you may as well soar above it - with that in mind it's no surprise that drone vehicles and even flying cars are of such interest to many tech giants.

Are We There Yet? All this week on Newstalk, on air and online, we're taking a closer look at commuting in Ireland - including where it might go in the future. You can find out more here.