Apps are changing how traffic engineers design roads

December 13, 2017

The days of engineers simply figuring out the most efficient way to control the flow of traffic are long gone. Apps influence the decision-making process of drivers so greatly that engineers must now take into account how the likes of Google Maps and Waze will alter traffic congestion on non-major roads.

“A lot of people get in the car and pull up Google Maps or Waze and maybe the most efficient route isn’t necessarily the interstate any more,” said Matt Duncan, principal traffic engineer in Lakewood, Colorado.

The problem facing Duncan in suburban Denver is a sort of chain reaction of traffic problems: address a congested area to make it more efficient, apps recognize the newly traffic-free route and direct more drivers to it, and traffic jams return. As a potential portent of things to come, Toyota is set to begin testing an app that predicts which lane will have less traffic, not just the general road.

Elsewhere, the problem lies in integrating the latest in traffic signal technology with specific cars and apps. Some Audis, for example, can connect to the grid and give drivers a red light countdown to ease anxiety and let them know when to expect it to change to green. The catch there is that the city must grant access to the grid, something not every city will be willing to do, at least not yet.

Other carmakers are attempting to work out different approaches, like BMW’s EnLighten app that, in theory, helps drivers avoid red lights by speeding up (within the speed limit, of course) or slowing down, based on the timing of the light...which only works if the city has an entire grid of connected lights.

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