Answer to traffic congestion is tech, not more roads, study says

By Steve Orbanek

Jul. 1, 2020

Research from Temple’s Min-Seok Pang shows that intelligent transportation systems could be key to saving both money and fuel and reducing emissions

PHILADELPHIA, July 1, 2020 — We’ve all been there. It’s 5:30 p.m., and you’re driving home on Interstate 95. Traffic has come to a complete…stop.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the best way to combat traffic congestion is to widen roadways or build another road. But new research from Temple University faculty member Min-Seok Pang offers another solution.

Recently published in Information Systems Research, “Mitigating Traffic Congestion: The Role of Intelligent Transportation Systems” takes a broad look at how intelligent transportation systems (ITS) could be the answer to solving traffic jams and congestion. ITS technologies are defined as a broad range of wireless, electronic and traditional communications-based information technologies, and several state departments of transportation have begun using them to help with travel safety and mobility.

The study, co-authored by Paul A. Pavlou of the University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business and Aaron Cheng, PhD ’19, of the London School of Economics, took a close look at 511, a transportation and traffic information system used in some regions of the U.S. and Canada. Some states are just using 511 as a telephone information hotline, but Pang says the ones that benefit the most have integrated a full ITS system online or via an app that tracks traffic conditions as part of their 511 service.

“With traffic congestion, the traditional solution is to build more roads and build more highways, but research has shown that that’s not effective,” says Pang, an associate professor of Management Information Systems and the Milton F. Stauffer Research Fellow at the Fox School of Business. “It’s also been shown that if we expand the roads or build more highways, that actually brings more traffic. Building new roads also takes several million dollars. We found that the more cost-effective way for cities to combat congestion is with ITS technologies.”

The study was extensive, as it analyzed longitudinal traffic data from ITS technologies deployed in 99 highly-populated U.S. metropolitan areas and ran from 1994 to 2014. The study included cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York-Newark, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Washington, D.C., and more.

According to the research, the cities where 511 had incorporated ITS technologies reaped many benefits. The data shows that they saved

  • More than $4.7 billion a year in lost work or productivity.
  • 175 million hours a year in travel time.
  • 53 million gallons a year in fossil fuel consumption. 
  • 10 billion pounds in CO2 from being emitted each year.

The study showed that the cities that saved and reduced traffic congestion succeeded in encouraging commuters to use 511 to track traffic conditions prior to driving. 

“We found that 511 really helped train drivers’ behaviors,” Pang says. “One finding shows that when drivers check 511 and see congestion, they choose to travel during less-congested times. So instead of traveling between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., drivers will choose to drive at a different time. This data provides real-time information to drivers, and they make a choice to drive when it’s more convenient.”

When 511 showed significant traffic congestion, commuters are also more likely to use alternative methods.

“Another interesting finding is there is an increase in commuting by rail, walking or by bikes when people see congestion,” Pang says. “We also find that ITS diverts traffic to other roads. We thought that ITS would lead to the biggest decrease in congestion on highways, but we actually saw the largest decrease on major roads when that technology was used.”

Moving forward, Pang and his colleagues hope this study helps inform policymakers of the benefits that come from using ITS. He also says this study is especially relevant now as various parts of the country prepare to reopen during this latest phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time in months, roads could soon again be busy.


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