Intelligent urban transport systems: a new technology which could change our lives

By Christian Kurrer, with James Tarlton

Intelligent urban transport systems

© Fuyu liu /

Can information technology contribute to alleviating traffic gridlock in our increasingly congested urban areas?

Over 70 % of all Europeans live in cities, and as this percentage continues to increase, cities become even more congested. Inhabitants suffer from increasingly poor air quality and more noise, as their cities become generally less liveable.

The recent car emissions controversy has drawn considerable attention to the problem of air pollution generated by private car traffic. The row revealed that efforts to reduce air pollution in Europe through stricter emissions regulations are largely ineffective. There is some, justified, expectation that a switch from gasoline to electric vehicles will have a significant impact on pollution levels, but the introduction of electric cars will still take years, and switching to electric vehicles alone will do little to solve the worsening congestion problems.

In recent years, we have therefore seen a renewed interest in the possibilities of intelligent transport system (ITS) solutions.

Potential impacts and developments

Numerous initiatives are under way to investigate how ITS can contribute to making traffic flow smoother and therefore more efficient. Many possibilities arise from the fact that cars are becoming ever more intelligent and increasingly communicate with their immediate environment. Already today, cars can adapt their speeds to the car driving in front, and future interaction with intelligent traffic signals will cut delays and fuel consumption. Cars will be able to book a parking spot at their destination in advance. Currently, satellite navigation systems can optimise routes accounting for the actual traffic situation, but future systems could communicate with each other through a central computer to optimise the overall set of routes that all vehicles should take, avoiding situations where too many drivers want to switch at the same time to the same seemingly faster route around a bottleneck.

All of these technological options would certainly allow more efficient management of current traffic levels. The question is, however, whether this will actually translate into less congestion in urban areas, or whether encouraging even more users to commute to work using their personal car would balance out the increases in fluidity.

Allowing more private passenger traffic to reach city centres smoothly, at the same time, would raise the problem of where to park all these cars. We would not gain much if traffic became smoother, but parking spaces increasingly difficult to find.

Anticipatory policy-making

Solving traffic gridlock in urban areas might require more than just increasing the traffic flow at individual intersections. It might require a more fundamental reassessment of how we want to meet our mobility needs in the future, make use of public spaces, and organise our urban lives.

One option could be to aim at an intelligent traffic system giving absolute priority to surface-bound public transport such as buses or trams. Traffic signals along roads employed by public transport could be programmed in such a way that buses would never have to stop for a red light, nor for cars blocking the road. A major drawback of public bus services today is that their effective travelling speed in urban areas rarely exceeds 15 km/h, and that their frequent stops at bus stops mean that they move even slower than private cars.

With ITS, we could drastically change this situation, potentially even doubling the effective travelling speeds of buses, which also means that the same number of buses and drivers could transport twice as many passengers.

In other words, the most effective way to faster, more fuel-efficient passenger car traffic might actually be an investment in the attractiveness of public transport. In addition to speed, the price of public transport is also a key aspect influencing individuals’ transport choices. Many people find the price of a single ride ticket too expensive for occasional use, or find tariff structures too confusing to understand. Public transport authorities perhaps focus too much effort today in selling and controlling tickets, with ever more high-tech access control systems, rather than actually transporting their passengers. A bus driver, who stops at a bus stop for a minute to sell a single-ride ticket for €2, while 60 passengers wait in the back, is a macro-economic nonsense.

If efficient public transport is considered to be a public necessity, we may need to think more fundamentally about who should pay for it, and how. Perhaps one might simply consider switching over to providing public transport for free as a rule, the same way in which we switched over to free public education decades ago. At the same time, we could re-assess whether cities should continue to provide free on-street parking spaces for residents. Charging residents for on-street parking could raise the necessary funds to make public transport free for all. Disincentivising parking of private cars on public roads could also make more public space available for even smoother public transport services. In addition, instead of using increasingly sophisticated machines to sell and control tickets for people who travel to town by bus, we could use all of this technical ingenuity to install systems that control and charge motorists who drive to cities in personal cars, providing additional funds to improve public transport.

Furthermore, besides focusing on the technical infrastructure, other options at the user level could make our transport system more intelligent. Daily commuters fill the streets at present, often travelling more or less similar routes in separate cars. ITS systems that would make spontaneous identification of options for ride sharing easier could reduce the need to use individual cars most of the time.

Many options exist therefore to make our traffic system more intelligent. Modern information technology offers tremendous opportunities in this field, but we will still need human ingenuity and imagination to harness its full potential.

This post is part of a series based on the EPRS publication ‘Ten more technologies which could change our lives‘, which draws attention to ten specific technologies and promotes further reflection about other innovations, in a follow-up to the 2015 ground-breaking publication ‘Ten technologies which could change our lives – potential impacts and policy implications‘. The publications explore the promises and potential negative consequences of these new technologies, and the role that the European Parliament as co-legislator could, and should, play in shaping these developments. The publications feed into the work and priorities of the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel and parliamentary committees.

Tell us what other important technological developments you see that might have a significant impact on the way we live in the future, and that would require European policy-makers’ attention, by leaving a comment below or completing our feedback questionnaire.

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