September 24, 2014

Chicago Skyway

The historic Chicago Skyway. Credit: Photographer fensterbme / Flickr Creative Commons

You know the frustration of watching the minutes tick by when you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. You're trying to get to work, pick up the kids, or make a class on time, but every car is advancing in halting, 6-inch increments.

It might be time for a radical traffic fix.

We called on Dr. Kara Kockelman, an engineering professor at The University of Texas, who studies ways to improve your commute. Kockelman believes that the solution lies in tolling. She says that the use of roadways should be open to the whims of the market, just like anything else you consume.

"Pricing signals are what equilibrate almost every market for any good or service. Roads are an important public good, but we will continue to see them congested unless we have proper pricing signals."

Technologies to improve tolling, like GPS tracking devices and high-speed radio frequency detectors, are now readily available. But we have largely failed to channel their power. In addition to these technologies, we may see other types of tolls, such as a congestion toll for peak hours.

But there's also a development on the horizon that could cause even more traffic: self-driving cars.

"The problem," Kockelman says, "is that driving will become so easy. You'll be able to sleep and read en route, so we will see a surge in driving. You might even see empty vehicles on the road, sort of like a taxi. That's a lot of added travel. So you're still going to need the pricing."

Even as technology improves, Kockelman admits that we will never completely alleviate traffic.

"There's always going to be an uncertainty with traffic that we can never completely anticipate."

Kara Kockelman, tolls, Culture, driving, traffic

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