Build smarter, not bigger

Policymakers, transportation industry executives and metro planners are gathering in Washington this week to discuss a smarter transportation system for the 21st century. The timing turns out to be quite apt – just over a year ago the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law. This one-year anniversary offers an ideal chance to pull over and consult the map: how far have we gotten with infrastructure improvements and, more importantly, are we there yet?

The movement of people and freight across town, between cities or around the world is critical to our economic vitality and quality of life.  Transportation propels the supply chain we count on for food, clothing and shelter.

Despite this, our country’s transportation systems are losing steam. Congested roadways cost the U.S. $78 billion annually in fuel and lost productivity. Domestic demand for freight rail is expected to double in the next 25 years, with aging rail systems and outdated business processes unable to keep pace. U.S. households spend nearly one dollar out of every five on transportation – yet still waste a collective 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic.


We can’t just rely on our systems getting bigger – they have to get smarter. It’s key to maintaining our economic competitiveness. Just take a look around.

Other countries are already there

Other countries have figured out that they aren’t going to conquer the future by pouring more asphalt or laying more tracks. They are already addressing their traffic problems in innovative new ways because they understand a simple fact: When building hundreds of miles of new highways isn't feasible, you need to use existing roads more intelligently.

In Stockholm, a dynamic toll system based on the flow of vehicles into and out of the city has reduced traffic by 20 percent, decreased wait time by 25 percent and cut emissions by more than 10 percent. 

City planners in Kyoto, Japan, simulate large-scale traffic situations involving millions of vehicles to analyze urban impact. The system can optimize traffic lights to reduce jams and predict the effect that a new shopping mall or traffic regulation will have on a community's roads.


Officials in Singapore receive real-time data through sensors embedded in the roadway. Running the data through sophisticated analytical software enables them to predict traffic flows with up to 85 percent accuracy. They plan to use the information to re-route the flow of vehicles. 

Other countries have also discovered the benefits of smarter rail transport. Netherlands Railways, one of the busiest national railway networks in Europe, is using IBM software to manage more than 5,000 trains in the Netherlands. The new system has improved operating efficiency by as much as six percent, netting a cost savings of more than $30 million annually.

High-speed rail propels the U.S. forward

Here in the U.S., we are making progress toward improving transportation for greater economic competitiveness. The Obama administration recently announced $8 billion in Recovery Act grants to develop America’s first nationwide program of high-speed inter-city passenger rail service. Critics may question the need for high speed rail, but it is worth recalling Eisenhower’s plan for interstate highways. His administration had no clear ROI for these highways, yet they changed the way America lives and works.

This week the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing to provide a progress report on the Recovery Act. Federal, state, and local agencies have announced 16,692 transportation and other infrastructure projects totaling $56 billion, according to the Committee’s report. Also this week, the Senate passed a $15 billion jobs bill that includes a one-year reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund and an expansion of the Build America Bonds program – both of which help state and local governments finance infrastructure projects. 

These all add up to a good start. But many of these projects focus on repairing existing infrastructure, such as roads and bridges. That’s a short-term fix. Building intelligence into roads and cars with roadside sensors, radio frequency tags, and global positioning systems is a long-term solution. The same is true of rail. When you consider that a single freight train can replace 280 trucks and thereby reduce fuel use, congestion and emissions, the payback on adding more intelligence and not just more tracks is obvious.

On this anniversary of the stimulus bill, let’s keep one thing in mind as we discuss a transportation system for the 21st century: We need to transform the way we manage movement by planes, trains and automobiles. That will reduce accidents, cut traffic congestion, move freight more efficiently, consume less of the earth’s resources and enhance our competitiveness. Government funds should emphasize intelligent transportation systems that result from collaboration between business, government and academia and the application of smart technology.

Are we there yet? No, but we’re getting closer.

Gerard M. Mooney is general manager for global government and education at IBM Corp.