The need for significant policy initiatives to tackle chronic traffic logjams in Asia is crystal clear.
According to a well-respected traffic index measuring congestion worldwide, over half the world’s top ten most congested cities are located in Asia. Asian cities occupy three of the top four places in the well-regarded TomTom Traffic Index. However, the contentious nature of introducing congestion charges has stalled policy action for years in some cities, if not decades. Alternative solutions are being considered or implemented in many Asian countries, including in India just this week.
Take Hong Kong, which has debated introducing a congestion charge zone (CCZ) for many years. According to Simon Ng, an independent consultant and former Chief Research Officer at Civic Exchange, a public policy think tank, Hong Kong lacks the political will to implement such a divisive scheme. He suggests that in many ways, Hong Kong is the perfect place to introduce a CCZ, as there exists in the territory the public transport infrastructure at affordable prices. This offers commuters a readily available alternative form of transportation.
However, new technology is creating additional solutions to manage traffic flow other than through monetary payment. In a recent article published in The South China Morning Post, Winnie Tang, an honorary professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Hong Kong, argued that Hong Kong can cut traffic congestion by investing in smart technology. She cited the use of smart traffic lights in the US, utilising real-time information and adaptive signal control technology that can respond to unfolding traffic patterns. This reduces travel time by 10 percent, with the bonus of saving fuel and improving air quality.
She also highlighted a recent initiative in the beautiful Chinese city of Hangzhou, where collaboration between Alibaba’s AliCloud and the local government is utilising big data, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and image recognition technology, in addition to about 50,000 roadside cameras, to produce real-time control of traffic lights. Macao also recently implemented similar technology
Many of these initiatives come under the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) category, which was defined several years ago in a European Union directive. These are “advanced applications which without embodying intelligence as such aim to provide innovative services relating to different modes of transport and traffic management and enable various users to be better informed and make safer, more coordinated and ‘smarter’ use of transport networks.”
The Directive from 2010 outlined how ITS integrates telecommunications, electronics and information technologies with transport engineering to “plan, design, operate, maintain and manage” the transportation network. The global market for ITS is expected to grow substantially over the ensuing years, at compound growth rate of 12.21% between the years 2016 and 2022, according to research by Market Research Future (MRFR). Furthermore, Asia-Pacific is projected to dominate the market of ITS throughout the forecast period. Research findings also indicate the main driver for this market is the increasing concern for traffic congestion and government initiatives. However, in some countries across the globe market penetration for ITS is hampered by poor infrastructure and prohibitive costs.
Chinese cities are particularly in need of innovative transport solutions to overcome bottlenecks and gridlock. According to the TomTom Traffic Index, at the time of writing, Chinese cities occupy eight out of the top 18 most heavily congested cities worldwide.
Top ten most congested cities across Asia (by % level of congestion)
India also has a worsening congestion problem across many cities on the vast subcontinent. It was recently reported in The Times of India that the local authorities of Chandigarh had been issued with a directive to come up with a congestion charging scheme. It is well-established that the congestion and ever-rising car population in India are partly responsible for India’s chronic smog and pollution. Furthermore, as pollution has worsened over recent weeks, the BBC reported that the “odd-even” car rationing scheme would be reintroduced in Delhi from 13 to 17 November. Vehicles will be permitted to travel on roads in Delhi depending on the last digit of their number plates. However, some commentators, including India’s watchdog, criticised the scheme as farcical and ineffective in terms of reducing pollution.
A leading light for congestion schemes is an Asian city, Singapore, which first introduced a CCZ in 1975. The city has long been considered a trailblazer for charging drivers for the privilege of utilising the road network. Indeed, the city-state is not resting on its laurels and is taking further measures to advance its traffic coordination. As outlined recently in The Economist, from 2020, Singapore will use GPS to vary the amount drivers pay based on distance, time, location and vehicle. Unsightly gantries that log drivers in and out of the CCZ will be surplus to requirements. The Economists added that drivers would be able to access real-time information about the cost and congestion levels of the roads.
According to The Economist, technology should make more sophisticated road pricing schemes easier to implement. As many Asian cities continue to combat longstanding and insufferable congestion problems, it could be that local authorities in charge of traffic policy will have to turn to advanced technology to ultimately find a solution to gridlock across Asia.