Kiva Allgood is Vice President of Development at Qualcomm Intelligent Solutions, specializing in smart cities and the industrial Internet. In her current role, Kiva helps build long-term connectivity plans and strategies that help improve the livability, sustainability, and connectivity fabric of cities. She has previously held leadership positions at AblePlanet, Motorola, and GE. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.
The average American spends 42 hours a year sitting in traffic, according to data collected by the Texas Transportation Institute. In and around major urban centers, that number jumps to 64 hours (Boston) and even as high as 82 hours (Washington, D.C.).
For now, eliminating traffic entirely is a pipe dream, but easing it is well within reach. Going forward, smart cities will allow citizens and government (the keepers of our infrastructure) to interact freely, leading to minute-by-minute optimization of the way we commute, connect, and use resources. And the better cities get at knowing and managing their commuters, the better urban planners can map out future roads.
The truth is, in our current system, bottlenecks are all but unavoidable, even though we know which stretches of road suffer from the worst congestion levels and when (rush hour!) those jams happen. On Highway 101 in Los Angeles, for instance, it can take more than 90 minutes to drive 26 miles during rush hour, making the stretch of road in the San Fernando Valley the single worst in the nation. Knowing and reacting to these patterns is where the healing begins.
Picture this: It’s a typical fall Sunday in San Diego, which means, among other things, the Chargers may have eked out a win. As fans leave, the movement of their smartphones alerts the city’s traffic-management team to open extra through-lanes on the highway or dispatch more toll takers and traffic cops earlier. If you were able to get home 30 minutes sooner, you’d be thankful—especially in California traffic.
This is one exemplary way in which an intelligent city could work. It isn't so much about the type of technology—the sensors, the centralized processing hubs, the connected traffic lights—but more about the fact that information is being shared across departments, then to the drivers themselves then back to the government again. It’s an ever-circling system that over time makes the whole city even more efficient and effective.
In the long run, drivers’ collective behaviors will not only shape how cities will work, but also how they’ll look.
To illustrate this, let’s stick with our discussion of roads. When traffic congestion builds up, the natural inclination is to build another lane, another tunnel, or another bridge to absorb the traffic overflow—a tactic that could actually make traffic worse in the long run. Instead, we should be using the roads we have more efficiently, and building new ones only when optimization isn’t enough to solve existing problems.
Suburbs continue to sprawl, and new urban developments spring up in derelict neighborhoods, giving urban planners the opportunity to rethink our thoroughfares from the ground up and ask the big questions. For example, as new modes of transport, like automated and shared-car networks, gain traction and cities get better at crunching data, will we need as many roads as we do today? What would an urban landscape look like when we start from close-to-scratch?
Cities across the globe are already working to shape this future, envisioning how a marked decrease in traffic will change the urban landscape. In the growing U.K. town of Milton Keynes, for instance, the local government is focusing on building infrastructure around smaller vehicles and fewer traditional cars. A radical intersection redesign in Austin, Texas shows how fewer, smarter lanes can actually aid the flow of traffic, while an Indiana mayor is replacing traffic lights with roundabouts. At the same time, the director of Iowa’s Department of Transportation has been vocal about the state’s reduced need for roadways.
Fewer roads means more room for green spaces—parks and pedestrian-friendly zones—and the ability to focus on other projects to make cities more self-sustaining. More green spaces, for example, provide more opportunity to capture and recycle water and embed farms into the urban fabric. In this vision, city living would become green living, by default. It all begins with rethinking how we (literally) get there.