Ralph Buehler, Associate Professor, Urban Affairs and Planning, School of Public and International Affairs, College of Architecture and Urban Studies - Alexandria, CAUS, Virginia Tech National Capitol Region

Featuring Ralph Buehler, Associate Professor in Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech, School of Public and International Affairs

What money saving tips do you have for drivers?

I would not divide people into drivers and non-drivers. We all use different modes of transport during a day, week, or a year. Sometimes we are drivers, other times we are pedestrians, or cyclists, or ride public transport. The best places for people are cities that offer transport options. You can choose to drive, ride transit, walk or cycle. Today, most Americans live in places where federal, state, and local government policies have made it impractical to ride transit, walk or cycle. Thus people are forced to drive for most trips.

The best way to save money when driving is having a fuel efficient car, considering tips for driving efficiently, avoid making unnecessary car trips or unnecessarily long car trips (check on-line; the closest store or restaurant may not be the one you have in mind), and making some of your trips by foot or bicycle. If you live in a city and do not drive much, maybe consider car-sharing instead of owning a car. A big part of driving costs is related to the value loss of your car over time—i.e., the money gap between buying and selling your car.

Will new automation technologies like the self-driving car help reduce accidents and congestion?

Automation technologies can help reduce crashes or the severity of the crash. Current technology seems to be promising—especially on limited access highways. However, self-driving cars have a lot of trouble in complex urban environments—especially when there are many pedestrians and cyclists.

Currently, about 30,000 people get killed in crashes and over 2 million people are injured in the U.S. every year. Technology alone will not solve this huge problem—especially in urban environments. Many crashes are related to poor engineering design of facilities, lanes that are too wide or speed limits that are too high, as well as irresponsible driver behavior like speeding, not looking out for other cars, or not yielding to pedestrians. Speeds have to be reduced, drivers have to be trained better, facility design has to be improved, and, in addition, automation can help.

Automation technologies can help reduce congestion in theory. Technology can help find alternate routes, electronic charging schemes can help control traffic flow, andself-driving cars may do the driving while you read a newspaper when stuck in traffic (thus limiting the pain of the time lost in congestion). All of these solutions have some downsides however. Rerouting on alternate routes may be an option, but the route will matter. Do residents really want floods of cars driving through neighborhood streets to avoid congestion elsewhere? Charging schemes can work successfully (see answer to the next question), but they may not be equitable. Truly self-driving cars are still off at the time horizon—especially given the fact that the average car in the U.S. is 10 years old. Thus, even if we had a cheap self-driving car in stores today (with all the remaining problems solved), it would take a very long time to replace the existing car fleet.

What policies or technological innovations have proven effective in reducing traffic congestion?

A key to avoid traffic congestion is to assure traffic flow, meaning that there are not too many cars on a roadway when compared to the roadway’s capacity. Congestion typically occurs during peak commute times when many people want to drive in the same direction on the same roadway. In those times, there is simply not enough roadway space for all the cars. Several policies and technological innovations have been used to combat congestion including:

High occupancy vehicle lanes that are only open to cars with 2 or even 3 passengers. This removes cars from the road, because commuters share one car instead of driving individually in one car each.
Ramp metering has been used for a long time—giving drivers a red light at on-ramps if traffic is slowing down on the roadway.

Electronic tolling on ‘express lanes,’ often adjacent to ‘normal’ lanes open to everyone for free can be used for a fee. In return, the lanes guarantee free flow of traffic and no congestion. As adjacent lanes get more congested—demand for the ‘express lanes’ increases, as does the price for using the lane.

A very promising solution is to reduce the need to drive, either by allowing telecommuting, by providing public transport service, or by mixing land-uses so that some people can walk or cycle to work.

Given the current land use, unsafe conditions for walking, and cycling, and scant public transport supply, I think congestion is here to stay for at least two reasons. First, a growing population with many people living in the suburbs means more people owning and driving cars. Second, most improvements to ease congestion on a roadway will result in other drivers changing their behavior to take advantage of the new improved speed (lack of congestion).

People may shift from other routes, other times of the day, or other modes. We cannot pave our way out of congestion—over time there will always be new cars filling the space. Providing attractive alternatives to driving will be key—so that people have options. Today, most Americans are forced to drive. They do not have any other viable options.

What are the best tips for preventing a car accident?

There are fewer crashes if car speeds are lower. Experience in Western Europe (e.g., Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden) shows that reduced car travel speed is key, especially in urban areas. Most cities there have reduced car travel speeds on neighborhoods streets to 19mph or less.Enforcement of speed limits is of course key as well. When speeds are lower, there are fewer crashes and the remaining crashes are less severe. Over the last 30 years, these European countries have made huge advancements in their traffic safety—much more than the U.S. Today, you are twice as likely to get killed in traffic in the U.S. as in those countries—measured as traffic fatalities per 100,000 population.

What can local authorities do to reduce traffic and improve safety?

As said before, there are fewer crashes if car speeds are lower. In addition, there are fewer (severe) crashes if there is less car traffic. For example, pedestrians rarely run into each other or injure or even kill each other. Thus, local governments should traffic-calm all neighborhood roads to 19mph or less. They should also enforce speed limits. In addition, they should provide attractive alternatives to driving, so that more people walk, cycle, and ride public transport and fewer people have to drive.