The traffic congestion curse (and some of the nicer ways cities are trying to fix it)

Cambridge, a historic British university city with a population of about 124,000, doesn't show up on top 10 lists of the world's most traffic-congested cities. But when a study conducted earlier this year named it the UK's congestion capital, you know it's bad. To make matters worse, the study found that drivers in London, a city with a population of more than eight million, spend 12 days a year sitting in their cars during rush hour traffic — compared to 23 days a year in Cambridge.

The city implemented a parking congestion charge in April which as we mentioned in the introduction hasn't gone over well with citizens, businesses and visitors. Now the city is trying a softer approach with a new travel app and related technology to get people to leave their cars at home and be glad they did. Our story shares the details and some examples of what other regions are considering to reduce congestion and make urban environments more livable. — By Doug Peeples


 Cities are trying all manner of strategies to mitigate traffic congestion and reduce air pollution. Some, like congestion pricing, charge fees for driving in the city during peak traffic periods. Others simply ban non-essential vehicle traffic in specific areas of the city.

And some cities are working to make getting around town without a car more convenient with connected walkways, bike paths and seamless, affordable multimodal mobility options. And others, like Cambridge, are taking it a step further.

A phone app and wayfinding screens
The key ingredients in the Smart Cambridge trip planning program now being developed are a free travel app for smart phones and informational wayfinding screens. They incorporate real-time traffic and transportation data to accurately predict travel times, recommend the best routes for buses, trains, bicycling and walking, current travel updates and other useful information. The smart wayfinding screens are being tested outside Cambridge Station with more to be rolled out over the summer at transportation interchanges, park and ride locations and inside public buildings.

The services are being developed by the Smart Cambridge Consortium, which is administered by the Cambridgeshire County Council (CCC) and partially funded by the Greater Cambridge Partnership.

At this point about 300 residents are using the app and their feedback will help guide improvements. The app, referred to as MotionMap, also includes a carbon sensor which collects and forwards air quality information. The app and wayfinding screens rely on data the city collects, weather reports and other sources.

As Herbert Lewis, head of the CCC and interim chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership explained, "The new app and screes at the station and other city locations will be further developed and the data expanded, but we want these tools in use now, so residents, commuters and visitors can test them out and tell us how they can be made even better."

And there are other innovative ways to get people out of their cars.

Ride your bike — and get paid for it
The Netherlands, a country where about a quarter of the population already rides bikes routinely, may soon be paying people to ride as part of a solution to reduce traffic congestion in cities, according to a Treehugger article. Dutch Secretary of State for Infrastructure Stientje Van Veldhoven is pushing to have employers to pay their employees 22 cents per kilometer to ride their bike to work. Her rationale is that employees who ride are healthier and take fewer sick days, companies can save on parking costs. She noted that the Dutch government plans to invest in additional bike lanes and parking.

Free public transportation for all?
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo suggested a different approach earlier this year: free public transportation for all citizens by 2020. She ordered a study in March to look at the possibility as a way to reduce traffic congestion and pollution. The question, of course, is if it's economically feasible for the city to do it. It may be a controversial idea but it's not a new one in France. More than 20 French communities already offer free public transportation.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.