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The best way to avoid traffic? Get rid of the drivers

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March 13th 2008 -- Manhattan NY. West Street near Canal. (photo by Brendon Stuart) (Brendon Stuart)

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March 12th 2008 -- Manhattan NY. Rush hour traffic is moderated by New York police at 41st street and 11th avenue. (photo by Brendon Stuart) (Brendon Stuart)

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March 12th 2008 -- Manhattan NY. Rush hour traffic is moderated by New York police at 41st street and 11th avenue. (photo by Brendon Stuart) (Brendon Stuart)

The New Jersey Turnpike. The Capital Beltway. The San Diego Freeway. The George Washington Bridge. Atlanta’s Downtown Connector. The Dallas “Mixmaster.”

These roads, some of the most congested in the country, inspire dread and loathing in all but the most stalwart of travelers. They thwart the lane-changers, the tail-gaters, and the speeders.

Economists, Nobel-prize-winning physicists and traffic psychologists have all sought solutions to the nation’s congestion problem, as have urban planners and civil engineers. But current plans to expand roads and introduce specialized tolls do not address the ultimate cause of traffic--people.

The best way to eliminate congestion, some experts say, is to take the driver out of the driver’s seat. “We wouldn’t have to deal with people behind the wheel,” said Dr. Jerry Schneider, a University of Washington professor emeritus of urban planning and civil engineering. “It would be a totally hands-off, brain-off experience.”

Driverless design concepts include Personal Rapid Transit, which involves passenger taxi-pods on rails; automatic highway systems that direct driverless cars using magnetic guidelines; and dual-mode systems with cars that can be driven normally on smaller roads and for shorter distances, but could go driverless on specialized electric rails, or “guideways,” for high-speed controlled travel.

“In the morning you would drop the kids off at school, drive to the guideway, sit back, read the paper, and automatically get off where you want to go,” said Kirston Henderson, the president and inventor of MegaRail Transportation Systems, a dual-mode company based in Texas.

Henderson, a former designer of military aircraft systems, has developed several dual mode concepts with 12 other retired engineers. “Many years ago, I saw coming massive congestion and steadily rising prices of oil, and set out to find a better way,” he said. “Our system solves a tremendous problem in cost, air pollution, and traffic.”

Indeed, increased efficiency from higher speeds, standardized spacing between cars and driverless driving could dramatically increase road capacities. A normal highway lane can carry about 2,000 cars an hour, Schneider said, while a dual-mode “lane” could handle 15,000 or more.

Traffic congestion is a “$78 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy in the form of 4.2 billion lost hours and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel,” says the Texas Transportation Institute in its 2007 Urban Mobility Report, with the average rush hour commuter losing $710 a year while stuck in traffic.

The billions of gallons of gas wasted while idling on the highway produce 27 billion kilograms of greenhouse gases out of the 7 trillion kilograms emitted yearly in the U.S. Traffic physicists (like the late 1977 Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine) have looked at traffic flow from the perspective of fluid dynamics, describing cars interacting on the road like liquid moving through a pipe.

Traditional approaches to reducing congestion focus on ‘making the pipe bigger’ by expanding roads, which is only be a temporary remedy, said Dr. Anthony Downs, an economist at the Brookings Institute. Downs believes in reducing the amount of fluid in the pipe by making it more expensive to use roads at peak times or in crowded areas. For example, special “High Occupancy Toll” lanes allow drivers to pay more for a faster trip; congestion pricing (as in the recently defeated plan proposed for downtown Manhattan) charges higher tolls to enter a congested area, encouraging drivers to switch to public transportation.

But solutions that focus on the physical aspects of traffic may be overlooking the real problem. “Congestion is often not caused by the road, but by the way drivers are driving,” said Dr. Leon James, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii and a pioneer in the small field of traffic psychology. When one driver in traffic makes a mistake, tail-gates, or changes lanes unnecessarily, hundreds of cars may have to suddenly put on the brakes. “We call it a traffic wave,” he said. “Everything suddenly slows to a crawl, but there’s no obstruction.”

That, in turn, has a psychological effect. “Congestion makes you feel frustrated and panicky,” said James, who recommends a program of life-long driver’s education to help deal with the cognitive problems caused by driving. “Many people are driving around in a constant seething rage.”

But dual-mode concepts could take the rage off the road. The Texas Department of Transportation recently funded a study by the Center for Energy, Environment, and Transportation Innovation at Texas A&M University that reviewed 102 different dual-mode concepts (including MegaRail’s.) The study, which will be released shortly, concluded that dual-mode is immature but very promising, said Jim Longbottom, one of the founders of the Center.

“The technology has the potential to solve a lot of traffic and pollution problems,” he said. “There would be energy gains, security gains, safety gains, capacity gains.”

MegaRail is close to completing a prototype of a 65 mph multi-car train similar to light rail and acting almost as a bus on local streets, Henderson said. It still requires a driver, but the electric guideway infrastructure is designed to accommodate driverless cars. “In three to four years we can get rid of the human operator, and in four to five we should have automatic passenger cars,” he said.

National implementation of a dual-mode system would cost around $1.5 trillion, Longbottom said, about half of current transportation expenditures over the same time period.

And there are other benefits to dual-mode systems: the use of electric power could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and imports of oil. “People talk about solar, wind and other renewables as energy independence but that’s hogwash,” said Longbottom. “If we want energy independence we have to attack the transportation sector, and dual-mode is one way to go about that.”

E-mail: elm2128@columbia.edu