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Here in North America, we think we have the leg up on progress and development. But that’s completely untrue when it comes to the matter of solving our traffic problems and urban congestion woes. Mobility is hardly a strength of the so-called developed world any longer and we have only ourselves (and our police unions) to blame.

I’m Sitting Here at 4 AM and I’m thinking…

If a stoplight in your town turns red in the middle of the night and stops your car when nobody else is around, I’m sorry but you are living in a ‘dumb’ city. Your mayor, your police, and your planning department have all conspired to cause you and your neighbours countless hours waiting at lonely crossroads or idling through heavily-congested traffic while ‘dumb’ traffic lights cycle through their maddening routines, oblivious to what’s going on around them.

Being stuck in traffic is a useless waste of time. But what’s truly maddening is that there are perfectly viable, smart solutions out there that will correct traffic mobility problems. Right now, there exist plenty of solutions where Artificial intelligence (AI) could be used to alleviate urban traffic woes.

So why aren’t our cities using them? Why are we still getting stuck in traffic, losing out on family time, leisure time, and work time? Why are we still sitting at red lights when there’s no other vehicle around to ‘go on green’? Turns out the answer isn’t what most people might guess. The answer may just be politics.

Here’s what major cities in Canada and the United States are doing and why they’re failing at using AI to solve their traffic flow problems.

Toronto, Montreal & Philly Think They Have an Answer

Civilian traffic cops: that’s the current solution of the day in major North American cities. Toronto’s mayor has made great fanfare out of his congestion plan, which calls for saving money by hiring what he calls “traffic wardens”.

Trained to help traffic move through congested areas of Toronto, these wardens are civilians, not police officers. Therefore, they are cheaper to hire.

Further south, Miami has what they call ‘Public Service Aids’ whose job description lists “directing traffic” as one of their many duties. They too are much cheaper than cops who get overtime pay for keeping the city’s cars moving through busy intersections and around major urban development projects.

But There’s a White Elephant in the Room

Hiring cadres of civilian traffic cops to solve gargantuan traffic problems in big cities is like hiring a maid service to clean the entrance to a garbage dump. Yes, they’ll make an improvement in a very visible area, but it’s ignoring the real problem that’s continually growing at an alarming rate.

There’s a Huge Disconnect – Here’s Why

The reason these cities are only offering up such lame solutions is simple. They have a lot of people who have a vested interest in keeping AI out of traffic direction. Why? Because police officers make a lot of money directing traffic and their unions are strong.

How does $62 an hour sound? That’s what cops get in some cities when they’re pulled from the more dangerous work of stopping burglaries or responding to violent crimes in action. Police departments will often pull a cop for traffic duty only after they’ve fulfilled their full-time duties of regular police work. Cities are also reaping the benefits and gorging their coffers with money collected by their traffic officers. Traffic officers have become simple collectors enforcing rules of the road that could be administered by AI without human intervention.

And even for the exorbitant price, police officers don’t always do a spectacular job. In NYC, where police officers are routinely seen directing traffic, there’s a clash of ideals. Some seem to view their job as purely to keep the flow vehicular traffic moving. Pedestrians and cyclists are on their own. With smart, AI-enabled traffic solutions, safety for all would be worked into the programming.

London and Stockholm Think They Have a Different Answer

Some European cities have a different answer. Rather than hiring an army of civilian traffic assistants, they’re using good old market forces. It’s called congestion pricing.

With congestion pricing, these cities are taking an economist’s approach to congestion: they view urban traffic problems the same way they view the economy. You can make changes either by altering supply or altering demand.

Building more roads: that’s increasing supply. Charging to drive through major urban areas known for being congested: that’s decreasing demand.

Either way, the approach doesn’t work as well as we’d like it to. It’s been proven that when we build more roads, more cars eventually appear to fill them to capacity. Congestion pricing doesn’t really work either. Many vehicles in affected areas are delivery vehicles, taxis, and limos, who simply cannot take another route. Plus, many cities saw the numbers of such vehicles increase after they introduced congestion pricing.

Smarter cities understand that the solution is to use the infrastructure we already have and — only to use it better. Smarter.

How to Be a Smart City With Better Traffic Flow

AI solutions for traffic range from connected stoplights to autonomous cars that work together to keep traffic moving.

There are currently plenty of applications for AI-enabled traffic solutions. Each is ready right now for any city to purchase and implement. In some parts of the world, including the west coast of the USA, Songdo in South Korea, and many other cities in Asia, some of these are already in use:

  • Speed limits that are set dynamically to facilitate higher average speeds on roadways
  • Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) in heavy congestion to prevent traffic jams on highways
  • Smart stoplights that memorize traffic patterns and communicate with each other to coordinate red and green lights for better traffic flow

With all this to look forward to, it seems a very small step to take just to get smart stoplights into our cities. It’s cheaper than making more roads. It’s less controversial than charging money to drive through cities. Finally, it’s the least our city administrators can do for us. They should stand up to police unions and allow just a little smart technology in. Driving could be a whole a lot less aggravating.

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