Traf­fic is ru­in­ing our lives — but we can be saved

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Don Gill­mor

Traf­fic is ru­in­ing our lives — but we can be saved

I’m wedged be­tween a BMW driven by a dark-haired woman on my left, and a Corolla with a sign ad­ver­tis­ing a house­clean­ing ser­vice on my right. Be­hind me is a man in a Buick whose an­gry op­er­atic ges­tures are vis­i­ble in my rearview mir­ror. He will be on his horn in no time. We’ve been creep­ing along to­gether for twenty min­utes, our progress mea­sured in me­tres. This is Welling­ton Street, in down­town Toronto. But it’s 2:50 p.m. — not ex­actly rush hour. And I’m com­ing from the east — go­ing against the ex­pected flow of out­bound traf­fic. None of us saw this com­ing, though per­haps we should have.

Toronto, where the av­er­age two-way com­mute is eighty-two min­utes, is plagued by some of the worst con­ges­tion in North Amer­ica. In 2016 rank­ings re­leased by the nav­i­ga­tion tech com­pany TomTom, the city took the ninth spot. Van­cou­ver was fourth, right be­low Los Angeles. Even sunny ­Ot­tawa made the list, ty­ing ­Montreal for fif­teenth place.

Few cities around the world are im­mune from this scourge. In 2010, Beijing had a twelve-day, 100-kilo­me­tre traf­fic jam — and it isn’t close to be­ing China’s most con­gested city. Even Lhasa, the placid Bud­dhist cap­i­tal of Ti­bet, has vi­cious traf­fic.

I live near down­town Toronto and work from home, yet still find my­self op­pressed by grid­lock. It af­fects where I go, what I do. When­ever pos­si­ble, I take pub­lic tran­sit or walk. My wife cy­cles eight kilo­me­tres to work. Nei­ther of my chil­dren has a ­driver’s li­cence. As a hockey dad, I am at the mercy of long, pun­ish­ing drives to sub­ur­ban are­nas. I have some­times been forced to come to an in­ex­pli­ca­ble stop at 11 p.m. on the 401, North Amer­ica’s busiest high­way. Where are all these peo­ple go­ing?

The av­er­age Cana­dian com­muter spends al­most 100 hours per year in grid­lock. In Toronto alone, the wasted time rep­re­sents as much as $11 bil­lion in lost pro­duc­tiv­ity and other costs. Traf­fic-clogged com­mutes are linked to anx­i­ety, stress, lone­li­ness, obe­sity, and di­vorce. (Swedish re­searchers found that cou­ples with com­mutes of over forty-five min­utes were far more likely to break up.) Car ex­haust — a toxic mix of car­bon monox­ide, ni­tro­gen ox­ides, and par­tic­u­late mat­ter — has turned ma­jor

road­ways into so-called can­cer cor­ri­dors, which, ac­cord­ing to one study, raise the risk of leukemia for chil­dren liv­ing nearby.

Traf­fic has be­come an ex­is­ten­tial threat. It makes us poorer, an­grier, lone­lier, ­sicker — and it will get worse be­fore it gets ­bet­ter. Per­haps much worse.

Traf­fic has been with us for a long time. Two thou­sand years ago, ­Julius Cae­sar banned char­i­ots dur­ing day­time hours in Rome to ease con­ges­tion. In 1879, New York had a five-hour horse-drawn car­riage log­jam.

Much of the prob­lem stems from our idio­syn­cra­sies as driv­ers. We switch to the other lane be­cause we think it’s mov­ing faster, even when it isn’t. We rub­ber­neck at ac­ci­dents, and we’re bad at us­ing turn sig­nals. We ac­cel­er­ate for­ward op­ti­misti­cally when room opens up ahead of us. We even read signs in­con­sis­tently. In one test, driv­ers faced a sign that read “Fall­ing Rocks.” Half slowed down to look for rocks; the other half sped up to avoid them.

If you’ve ever braked hard in re­sponse to an in­ci­dent — a truck swerv­ing into a lane — you might have trig­gered a “‘back­ward-trav­el­ling wave” that rip­pled out­ward, ul­ti­mately forc­ing cars many miles be­hind to grind to a halt. In 2008, Ja­panese sci­en­tists per­formed an ex­per­i­ment in which cars were evenly spaced on an ­oval track and driv­ers were in­structed to main­tain a speed of ex­actly thirty kilo­me­tres per hour. Grad­u­ally, more cars were added, one by one. There’s a point when ­physics kicks in and there are too many cars ­in­side too small a space. But even be­fore that point is reached, driv­ers be­come ­er­ratic: they slow down, speed up, stop. They bring ­in­di­vid­ual traits — ag­gres­sion, ­re­sent­ment, poor judg­ment, mar­ginal skills — to a ­col­lec­tive ac­tiv­ity.

Be­ing in a car changes who we are. We de­hu­man­ize other driv­ers. We refuse to let them merge; we tail­gate and block. We for­give our er­rors and over­es­ti­mate our com­pe­tency: the vast ma­jor­ity of driv­ers be­lieve they have above-av­er­age skills. We pre­fer large cars or SUVs be­cause they feel safer, though stud­ies in­di­cate that the safer we per­ceive our­selves to be, the less sen­si­bly we drive. (SUV driv­ers are more likely to not wear seat­belts and to drive drunk. And sit­ting up high makes us think we’re go­ing slower than our ac­tual speed.) We are each the cen­tre of our own traf­fic uni­verse.

The worst man­i­fes­ta­tion of dys­func­tional driv­ing is road rage, a con­di­tion some psy­chi­a­trists have linked to In­ter­mit­tent Ex­plo­sive Dis­or­der (vi­o­lent re­sponses that are out of pro­por­tion to per­ceived threats). In 2015, a poll found that a third of Cana­di­ans ad­mit to suf­fer­ing from road rage at least once per month. In car-mad China, it has reached epi­demic pro­por­tions. From 2012 to 2015, Chi­nese po­lice counted 104 ­mil­lion road-rage in­ci­dents. One of the most no­to­ri­ous in­volved a woman be­ing dragged out of her car and se­verely beaten by an­other driver. She suf­fered frac­tures and a con­cus­sion. When the video of the in­ci­dent was re­leased on­line, there was out­rage. The male driver, how­ever, re­leased footage from his own dash­cam show­ing the woman cut­ting him off as she tried to make a missed exit. This trig­gered a new wave of In­ter­net out­rage—this time directed at her .

Be­ing in a car changes who we are. We de­hu­man­ize other driv­ers. We refuse to let them merge; we tail­gate and block.We for­give our er­rors and over­es­ti­mate our com­pe­tency.

Mak­ing a high­way wider isn’t a so­lu­tion — traf­fic vol­ume merely ex­pands to fill the avail­able space. When LA tried to re­lieve traf­fic on the 405 — the most con­gested stretch of high­way in the United States — it opted for a five-year, $1.1 ­bil­lion project that added a new car­pool lane. The re­sult was that rush-hour com­mutes are now, on av­er­age, a full minute longer . Build­ing more roads sim­ply cre­ates more in­cen­tive for peo­ple to drive.

The truth is, we can’t help our­selves. Our cities were built for cars, and, to a de­gree, so were we. Ital­ian re­searchers gave a group of re­search sub­jects a num­ber of to­kens that they could spend on two ­travel modes: car or metro. Each mode came with a cost. But while the cost of ­rid­ing the metro was fixed, the cost of a car changed ac­cord­ing to ran­dom vari­ables: ­weather, ac­ci­dents, road work. Even when the av­er­age cost of tak­ing a car was 50 per­cent more than the al­ter­na­tive, test sub­jects chose it by a two-to-one ra­tio.

The bias in favour of cars is more pro­nounced when tran­sit op­tions are limited. And Cana­di­ans’ op­tions gen­er­ally are aw­ful. Be­tween 1955 and 1977, in­vest­ment in Cana­dian in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing pub­lic tran­sit, grew at a ro­bust 4.8 per­cent an­nu­ally, keep­ing pace with pop­u­la­tion growth and ur­ban­iza­tion. But be­tween 1977 and 2001, that fig­ure was only 0.1 per­cent. The Fed­er­a­tion of Cana­dian Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties es­ti­mates that the ur­ban tran­sit and trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture deficit now stands at $44.5 bil­lion. So it’s hardly a sur­prise that only 12 per­cent of Cana­dian com­muters take pub­lic tran­sit to work.

There are bright spots, ad­mit­tedly. Metrolinx, the body that gov­erns tran­sit in the Toronto-Hamil­ton cor­ri­dor, has more than 200 in­fra­struc­ture projects un­der­way, in­clud­ing seventy-five kilo­me­tres of light-rail lines. More than $32 bil­lion has been com­mit­ted. Justin Trudeau’s fed­eral gov­ern­ment now plans to dou­ble fund­ing to in­fra­struc­ture over the next two years, with a fur­ther com­mit­ment of $60 bil­lion over the next decade, a third of it go­ing to pub­lic tran­sit.

But even this Her­culean ef­fort likely won’t ease con­ges­tion. Bruce McCuaig, Metrolinx’s CEO, said the pent-up de­mand is sim­ply too great. Fol­low­ing the usual ­pat­tern ob­served in other cities, for ev­ery Toronto-area driver who con­verts to ­pub­lic tran­sit, an­other is ex­pected to take his or her place on the high­way.

The cy­cling rev­o­lu­tion, should there be one, will likely be led by mil­len­ni­als. For them, cars are fol­low­ing the same cul­tural arc as ci­garettes: once sexy and cool, now toxic.

Po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency has long been the curse of trans­porta­tion plan­ning. Plans are made to woo vot­ers and then scrapped by newly elected gov­ern­ments. Toll roads and gas taxes, in par­tic­u­lar, are beloved by plan­ners and econ­o­mists, then dumped by politi­cians who fear a pop­ulist com­muter back­lash. But things may change as traf­fic wors­ens. In LA, a pro­posed tax to raise $120 bil­lion for tran­sit awaits ap­proval by vot­ers (though Van­cou­ver’s equally grid­lock-weary cit­i­zens re­cently voted against a 0.5 per­cent tax hike linked to tran­sit). The Lon­don, Eng­land, con­ges­tion charge — in ef­fect since 2003 — is now $21 per day and has broad sup­port among cit­i­zens. Stock­holm and Mi­lan have both im­ple­mented their own con­ges­tion taxes.

“Con­ges­tion is never go­ing to go away in the Toronto re­gion,” said An­dre ­Sorensen, a pro­fes­sor of ur­ban ge­og­ra­phy at the

Univer­sity of Toronto. As den­sity builds in the Greater Toronto Area, traf­fic pres­sures will only grow on ex­press­ways such as the Don Val­ley Park­way (built to carry about 60,000 ve­hi­cles a day, it cur­rently han­dles closer to 100,000). Eighty ­per­cent of Cana­di­ans now live in grow­ing ur­ban ar­eas. No mat­ter how much tran­sit we build, we won’t see much re­lief in the short term.

But in the long term, seem­ingly small in­no­va­tions — such as build­ing more cy­cling paths — could bring lo­cal­ized re­lief by en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to leave their cars in their drive­ways. A year af­ter the in­stal­la­tion of ded­i­cated bike lanes (which pro­vide a phys­i­cal bar­rier be­tween cars and bikes) in five US cities, cy­cling vol­ume ­in­creased as much as 171 per­cent. When Toronto ­im­ple­mented sep­a­rated bike lanes on two east-west ar­ter­ies, us­age more than quadru­pled. Ac­cord­ing to a US Depart­ment of Trans­port study, sep­a­rat­ing cy­clists and mo­torists is key to in­creas­ing bike rid­er­ship. Each year, 7,500 Cana­dian cy­clists are se­ri­ously in­jured or killed. The ­Nether­lands, by con­trast, has a cy­cling fatality rate that is one-third the North Amer­i­can rate. The chief rea­son: in­fra­struc­ture that di­vides cars and bikes.

One ar­gu­ment against cy­cling in­fra­struc­ture is that Canada is sim­ply too cold for bikes to be part of any con­ges­tion-­re­duc­tion strat­egy. But Copen­hagen, con­sid­ered the gold stan­dard of cy­cling cities, is hardly trop­i­cal. More than 50 per­cent of the city’s com­muters cy­cle to work on 400 kilo­me­tres of sep­a­rated bike lanes. (The city is cur­rently build­ing an ad­di­tional 300 kilo­me­tres of “cy­cle su­per­high­ways” con­nect­ing the down­town core to the sub­urbs.) There are other fac­tors in­volved in this Danish rev­o­lu­tion (pro­hib­i­tive gas and ve­hi­cle taxes), but the les­son gen­er­ally holds that when it comes to bikes, in­fra­struc­ture mat­ters.

The cy­cling rev­o­lu­tion, should there be one, will likely be led by mil­len­ni­als, who cur­rently make up a third of Canada’s pop­u­la­tion. For many in that co­hort, au­to­mo­biles are fol­low­ing the same cul­tural arc as ci­garettes: once sexy and cool, now toxic. When they do drive, mil­len­ni­als are more in­clined to use car-share ser­vices such as Car2go, Zip­car, and Au­toShare. (Eletron­i­cally con­nected, they are also more ­in­clined sim­ply to stay at home.)

If even 1 per­cent of car-driv­ing com­muters switched to bi­cy­cles, the ef­fect could be pro­found: a study in Boston pre­dicted that such a shift dur­ing peak pe­ri­ods would pro­duce an 18 per­cent drop in com­mut­ing time. And yet, driv­ers still refuse to ditch their cars. “Peo­ple want change,” said ­Eric Miller, direc­tor of the Univer­sity of Toronto’s Trans­porta­tion Re­search In­sti­tute, “but not badly enough to al­ter their be­hav­iour yet.”

If our be­hav­iour is slow to change, if politi­cians con­tinue to fail us, there is al­ways the hope of new tech­nol­ogy. ­Un­for­tu­nately, the last game-chang­ing ad­vance in trans­porta­tion was the ­Seg­way scooter, which ar­rived to great fan­fare in 2001 and was re­duced to a punch­line ­within months. It was pricey ($9,000), dif­fi­cult to park, slower than a bi­cy­cle or car, not as con­ve­nient as walk­ing, and lacked any health ben­e­fits. From a trans­porta­tion per­spec­tive, it rep­re­sented the worst of all pos­si­ble worlds.

But fif­teen years later, a much more promis­ing trans­porta­tion rev­o­lu­tion is afoot: self- driv­ing cars. The mod­ern ­vi­sion of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles (AVs) — as they are for­mally known — took shape in 2004, with a first-of-its-kind race spon­sored by the US Depart­ment of De­fense.

Fif­teen ­mod­i­fied ve­hi­cles — rang­ing from Hum­mers to four-wheel-drive pick­ups to all-ter­rain ­ve­hi­cles — squared off in the Mo­jave Desert. There was only one rule: no ­hu­man help. Once out of the gate, the cars had to use their own ­com­pu­ta­tional smarts to nav­i­gate a rock-strewn route filled with steep slopes and other ob­sta­cles. Alas, no one fin­ished the 230 kilo­me­tre route; no ve­hi­cle got any far­ther than 11.78 ­kilo­me­tres be­fore crash­ing, stalling or sim­ply be­com­ing nav­i­ga­tion­ally par­a­lyzed. The $1 mil­lion prize went un­claimed.

The fol­low­ing year, the prize was dou­bled. This time, five ve­hi­cles suc­cess­fully com­pleted the race. The top prize was won by a team from Stan­ford Univer­sity, whose en­try, “Stan­ley,” fin­ished with a time of six hours and fifty-three min­utes. Google hired the team and be­gan de­vel­op­ing its own AV. And by 2010, the com­pany had a work­ing pro­to­type.

The US mil­i­tary also got what it ­wanted: two years ago, it tested its first con­voy of un­manned tac­ti­cal ve­hi­cles. More than a dozen firms now have their own mod­els. Volvo is plan­ning a pi­lot project in ­Gothen­burg in­volv­ing 100 ve­hi­cles. (It’s test­ing regime is aimed in part at as­sess­ing win­ter-weather per­for­mance.) An AV has suc­cess­fully driven the 5,470 kilo­me­tres from San Fran­cisco to New York City, and Google has driven its fleet of AVs more than a mil­lion test miles.

Most AVs use a com­bi­na­tion of GPS and laser tech­nol­ogy called LiDAR (a port­man­teau of light and radar). The sen­sors send out short bursts of light as the car moves, es­sen­tially cre­at­ing snap­shots that are fed through the car’s com­puter and used to con­struct a 3-D map of the en­vi­ron­ment. AVs aren’t com­pro­mised by vari­able ­hu­man re­flexes, alcohol, or poor night vi­sion. They won’t slow down to look at ac­ci­dents, break up with their girl­friend by cell­phone while driv­ing, dou­ble the speed limit to im­press teenage friends, or turn around to yell at kids in the back seat.

The tech­nol­ogy is ex­pected to re­shape ur­ban life. A 2015 re­port com­mis­sioned by the City of Toronto’s Trans­porta­tion Ser­vices Divi­sion con­cludes that whole­sale AV adop­tion would trig­ger a 90 ­per­cent im­prove­ment in fatality and in­jury rates. The ve­hi­cles — which are ex­pected to be com­mon­place by the late 2020s, ac­cord­ing to the re­port — will ease con­ges­tion by mov­ing at op­ti­mum speeds and by ­draw­ing on con­tin­u­ous traf­fic re­ports to de­ter­mine the best route. Elec­tri­cally pow­ered AVs would also dras­ti­cally re­duce emis­sions. If AVs are in­tro­duced on a large scale in ­Toronto, the gains for the city — thanks to re­duced grid­lock, fewer ac­ci­dents, and lower in­sur­ance — are pro­jected to be about $6 bil­lion an­nu­ally.

These num­bers rely on a key as­sump­tion, how­ever: that AVs will re­duce the num­ber of ve­hi­cles on the road (it is ex­pected that most AVs will be shared rather than pri­vately owned). But Peter Nor­ton, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory in the engi­neer­ing fac­ulty at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, cau­tions oth­er­wise. He notes that AVs may ­merely ex­pand the no­tion of what we con­sider to be a vi­able com­mute: if we’re pre­pared to bat­tle through fifty kilo­me­tres of ugly traf­fic while clutch­ing a steer­ing wheel, we could con­ceiv­ably agree to a faster, safer com­mute of 100 kilo­me­tres in­side an AV (es­pe­cially if we can spend that time work­ing or sleep­ing). The roads may also be jammed with empty AVs — units that have been dis­patched by their own­ers to pick up pas­sen­gers or even cargo.

Steven Waslan­der, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing and

mecha­tron­ics, heads a lab at the Univer­sity of Water­loo that builds one-fifth-scale AVs to test the way mul­ti­ple driver­less ve­hi­cles in­ter­act. I asked him what could hap­pen in the tran­si­tion phase, when ra­tio­nal ro­bots have to deal with not-al­ways-­ra­tio­nal hu­mans on the same roads. He said that when a Google pro­to­type came to a four­way stop sign, it du­ti­fully stopped. Other cars edged for­ward, a cue for the car to stay put (it is pro­grammed for safety above all else). As a re­sult, the driver­less car was con­tin­u­ally vic­tim­ized by more ag­gres­sive driv­ers. So Google de­vel­oped a car that be­haved more like a hu­man; it inched into the in­ter­sec­tion, sig­nalling to oth­ers that it was claim­ing its proper place in the queue.

But will that be enough? There’s a lot of in­stinct in­volved in driv­ing. Faced with three other cars ar­riv­ing near-si­mul­ta­ne­ously at a four-way stop, we hu­mans ­as­sess one ­an­other. We see what the lasers don’t — that the an­gry-look­ing guy with the death metal screech­ing out of his jacked-up Mus­tang will likely go first. The re­tiree in the twelveyear-old Ter­cel will prob­a­bly be cau­tious. We in­stantly cre­ate a hi­er­ar­chy and act ­ac­cord­ingly. There are fa­cial ex­pres­sions, hand ges­tures, mo­ments of eye con­tact — all the semi­otics of driv­ing. Com­put­ers can’t make these kinds of de­ter­mi­na­tions.

But pre­cisely be­cause most of our in­for­ma­tion comes through sight, we are com­pro­mised by blind spots and the fact that we can see only one thing at a time. The AV can see 360 de­grees si­mul­ta­ne­ously over a greater dis­tance. So that ra­bid ­bi­cy­cle courier who is weav­ing in and out of ­traf­fic is a sur­prise to us when he al­most takes our mir­ror off. The AV, how­ever, has been mon­i­tor­ing his progress all along.

In the lab, As­sayl­bek Dak­ibay and Arun Das, both twenty-eight-year-old grad­u­ate stu­dents, talk en­thu­si­as­ti­cally about the ­fu­ture of AVs. They are cur­rently try­ing to re­place the ex­pen­sive Google laser sen­sors with cheaper cam­eras, thereby bring­ing down the to­tal price of the ve­hi­cles. Arun is ­also work­ing on a fly­ing AV, a drone that uses cam­eras to nav­i­gate through com­plex ter­rain (such as a for­est). The model is small, but there are other re­searchers de­vel­op­ing larger pas­sen­ger mod­els. “I’ve heard of some com­pa­nies in the Bay Area that are work­ing on fly­ing cars,” he said. “Some­one we know is work­ing on it, but he’s not al­lowed to talk about it.” When I asked them about the pos­si­bil­ity of broad adop­tion in the late 2020s, they felt that was too con­ser­va­tive an es­ti­mate: it would hap­pen sooner.

The transpo rta­tion rev­o­lu­tion will be both dis­rup­tive and bloody, filled with un­likely part­ner­ships and ca­su­al­ties. Ford is in talks with Google and has plans to cre­ate a ride-share pro­gram to com­pete with Uber. Mean­while, Uber has cre­ated UberHop, a multi-pas­sen­ger ser­vice to com­pete with mass tran­sit, and plans to be driver­less by 2030. Both Ap­ple and Black­berry have en­tered the fray. The AV mar­ket likely will re­sem­ble the car in­dus­try from the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, be­fore dozens of man­u­fac­tur­ers were win­nowed down to the Big Three.

Mean­while, the ex­ist­ing world of traf­fic and tran­sit re­mains un­der­funded and largely dys­func­tional. Un­til driver­less cars can pro­vide sal­va­tion, real change will have to come from driv­ers’ own be­havioural shifts, a grudg­ing ac­cep­tance of higher gas taxes and tolls, more cy­cling and walk­ing, and an in­crease in telecom­mut­ing. These so­lu­tions are hardly ro­man­tic or trans­for­ma­tive, but they might be all we have avail­able un­til the ro­bots take over.

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