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The Challenges and Solutions in Urban Transportation

Urban transportation systems must be flexible to accommodate a variety of travel needs. Whether it’s reducing the number of vehicle-miles traveled, increasing access to public transit, or addressing mobility for lower-income communities, these solutions require a combination of infrastructure development, policy interventions and community engagement.

Passenger transport options include street (trolleybus, motor bus, and subway), nonstreet (elevated, monorail, or automated people movers), and private vehicles. Each option has its own challenges and benefits.

1. Longer Commutes

As people spend more time in their cars, the demand for road infrastructure increases. This leads to congestion, mainly caused by commuters and truck movements. The growth of e-commerce also contributes to congestion, as more frequent home deliveries require trucks to navigate urban areas.

A study by the Texas Transportation Institute finds that urban commuters lose about 46 hours per year due to traffic delays. This is a significant increase from the 16 hours lost in 1980.

The length of a commute affects quality of life and social interactions. Longer commutes mean less time for family and friends and can lead to obesity, stress and other health problems. In addition, traffic impedes street activities such as markets, agoras, games and parades.

Commuters may be able to reduce the duration of their journey by sharing vehicles. This strategy can also improve efficiency by reducing traffic volume. In order to be successful, however, it must be well integrated with public transit and offered at a reasonable cost.

2. Congestion

In addition to wasting time and fuel, traffic congestion contributes to poor air quality, higher energy consumption and increased emissions. It also hampers economic growth by imposing a cost on people who travel and businesses that rely on transportation services.

One approach to solving congestion is to greatly expand road capacity. This is impractical and very expensive, however, because it would require demolishing millions of buildings and turning most major commuting roads into concrete slabs that would be grossly underused at non-peak times.

Another way to reduce congestion is to make high-speed choices available by creating new, toll-based roadway lanes for vehicles that are willing to pay a peak-hour price. These HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes can increase the number of traveler options during congestion periods without taking away highway choices from lower-income drivers. In addition, congestion can be reduced by providing more efficient travel options such as carpooling, bus transit or rideshare. However, these measures can only slow congestion increases, not eliminate them.

3. Overcrowding

Many urban transit systems are overcrowded during peak hours. Whether the result of planning for peak capacity or under-funding, overcrowded conditions can make public transit less desirable to individuals who are accustomed to the flexibility of private transport (including their own vehicles) and who accept the initial cost, running costs and parking expenses associated with the alternative.

During these periods, it is important for cities to provide options such as traffic signal synchronization and metering on ramps, regulated parking, high occupancy vehicle lanes for buses, trams and light rail and a wide range of rider-supporting infrastructure including park-n-ride stops and improved route stop amenities. The implementation of advanced technology systems that streamline maintenance tracking and employee scheduling can also help to reduce operating costs and downtime for transit vehicles.

Commuters may also be encouraged to utilize public transit services by introducing new incentives such as point programs that can be used for air miles and other rewards, or by improving the visibility of public transit options via electronic signage and increased availability of ride-sharing technology.

4. Transportation Choices

Urban productivity depends on the ability of transport systems to efficiently move labor and consumers between multiple origins and destinations. Yet many cities face congestion and air pollution problems that challenge the viability of their transportation networks. Moreover, some of the new mobility modes that were supposed to fix these problems are now compounding them.

Our research finds that what consumers want most from their transport experience is the freedom to be productive and multitask on trips, independence from rigid schedules, and solutions that are environmentally sustainable. Those desires point to the need for innovative approaches that integrate seamlessly with existing transport systems.

For example, better public transit promotion and improved route stop infrastructure can help attract riders while also easing the pressure on city streets from automobile traffic. Incentives such as free or discounted monthly passes can encourage more people to choose public transit. Restrictions on vehicle access can also be a helpful tool to address certain congestion and environmental issues, as shown by the Moses project limited-access parkways in New York City.

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