“No traffic jam on holidays. No one must be stuck in traffic”

Interview with Prof. Rod Franklin, by Mauro Meggiolaro

Prof. Franklin, in the coming weeks, millions of Europeans will pour over roads and highways to reach their summer vacation destinations. Despite more and more targeted advices and warnings, we won’t be able to avoid kilometers of traffic jams. Yet,  you claim that congestion of roads in summer is not an inevitable evil...

I have been supporting this idea for many years, yes, because long-standing solutions have already come to hand but, so far, they have been adopted sporadically in Germany and only in some cities or regions.

For example?
For example, school holiday departures could be staggered by region, a method that Germany has adopted with considerable success in the past. In recent years, however, the holiday periods of the various “Länder” have progressively been uniformed and this has had disastrous effects on traffic, especially on the north-south axis. It is clear that, in this case, these are political choices, which a motorway operator may not necessarily be able to influence.

But this is not the only solution possible...
Certainly not. Speaking again of choices that depend on a strong political will, it is advisable to better stimulate the use of alternative means of transport such as the train and the plane: in certain periods railway companies should make available more trains for tourist destinations where an increase of car traffic is expected. It is an option that has been successfully adopted in Switzerland, just to make an example.

You mean trains with car transport?
In fact, I would not encourage the pairing of the train with the car. First of all because it is very expensive and then because the choice of the train (or plane) should be accompanied by a more sustainable mobility once you reach your destination. Millions of people use the car every day and can’t even make without them on vacation. Holidays should be dedicated to discovering new places using the car as little as possible, perhaps hiring it for a few days if you have to make long distance trips.

If there are less cars on roads, however, revenues for companies managing motorways would also drop…
Believe me, this is a false problem. I don’t say that we should discourage the use of roads but rather their abuse. And abuses always generate negative feedbacks. When people think of highways in summer, images that are drawn in their minds are almost always negative: interminable traffic jams, accidents, etc. This perception does not play in favour of the reputation of highways. More cars circulating during periods of high traffic congestion will surely generate more revenue but a big loss from a reputational point of view. In the end, the budget is likely to be in balance or even negative for highway managers. The increase in revenues during periods of high congestion is insignificant compared to the reputational loss.

Today, there are advanced systems for real-time traffic monitoring. How could they be used to avoid congestion in days and hours with more expected traffic?
We often talk about intelligent departures, usually in the evening, after 6 PM. But then we know that if a large number of people decide to leave in an "intelligent" way, the traffic jams are simply shifted a few hours forward but not eliminated. Today, however, you just need to use google to find dozens of "smart" departure times in the same day. In this way, the risk that everyone travels "intelligently" at the same time can be significantly reduced.

Not all drivers are, however, able to use google services...
For this reason, in my view, highways managers should increasingly integrate digital traffic monitoring systems in their traditional signalling systems, providing real-time advice and offering a number of solutions. The future of "smart" departures is, however, all digital: in the coming years, more and more people will be able to create their own "tailor-made" intelligent departure times, using a dynamic approach, through google and related applications.

What role can highways managers have in this evolution?
A key role, since they could offer ad hoc applications themselves, crossing google data with data that only a highway manager can have: data about the historical flow of traffic, the amount of kilometres covered by each car, the types of vehicles in circulation on certain days of each year. This data asset could also allow highways managers to adopt another important traffic control solution and not just in the summer, I mean “variable tolls”, depending on whether you enter highways in peak or off-peak days or hours.

This sounds good in theory. But is it a viable solution?
Of course, the technical prerequisites for adopting it are all there. But then you have to deal with sociological or political variables. In the highways of southern California, for example, variable tolls have become a standard. The concept is the same that is used, for example, in the London subway. Of course, we are dealing here with different means of transport, with drivers rather than with passengers, however from the point of view of social adaptation, the process would be the same.

Let's switch to another sore point of summer traffic: there are certainly millions of families travelling on highways, but also trucks and other commercial vehicles...
In many countries there are already clear limits to the circulation of commercial vehicles and not just during summer holidays. However, I think that one can and should be more severe in the application of these limits, especially in summer. I like to quote the example of Los Angeles. During the Olympic Games in 1984, a total blockade of roads was feared, since roads were already heavily stressed by traffic in ordinary days. In the end, it was decided to ban truck traffic from 6am to 6pm. A very criticised measure that, however, worked very well without creating any discomfort in the delivery of goods and avoiding any kind of traffic jam or congestion. Such measures, however, require the cooperation of transport companies and recipients of goods and a certain degree of mutual trust.

What do you mean?
If you want to prohibit the delivery of goods in city centres during the day, it is necessary to create storage centres out-of-town, in which transport companies deposit goods in the evening or night so that retailers can collect them early in the morning. It's a system that is already being used successfully in London. Such a system frees the cities’ roads from trucks but not only: many larger road arteries are freer from commercial vehicles during the day as a consequence. Let us not forget that trucks occupy three times the space of a car and, more importantly, they have very slow braking and acceleration times that create the well-known "accordion effect": one of the main causes of traffic jams on highways.

All in all, I think a mixture of political decisions and technological measures should be implemented with the motorway operators playing a key role based on the exclusive traffic statistics and historical trends they possess.