Updated date:

Improving Austin's Traffic Control

Ashok is a Sophomore at Texas A&M University, pursuing a Computer Science degree, in addition to minors in Mathematics and Business.

Figure 1 Austin Downtown

Figure 1 Austin Downtown

Austin is constantly growing in population size. As a result, traffic is becoming
worse each day. This article focuses on solving Austin’s traffic problem. This is intended for lawmakers and those involved with the implementation of transportation in Austin. The current solution, toll roads, has failed to improve traffic control in Austin. This article overviews this problem and provides three alternative solutions to potentially improve traffic control in Austin:

  • The modification of traffic lights and signals.
  • The addition of multiple HOV lanes.
  • The reduction of toll road costs.

These potential solutions will be analyzed for viability, public acceptance, and environmental impact in comparison to the current status. After thorough analysis, this paper will provide recommendations to implement for better traffic control in Austin.

After analyzing the viability, public acceptance, and environmental impact of the solutions in comparison to the current one, recommendations were created for the improvement of traffic control in Austin. After analyzing each solution, it was concluded that public acceptance was garnered for all the solutions. The main concerns remain with the viability and the implementation cost of each solution.

What Each of the Three Methods Will Cost

The modification of traffic lights and signals, if implemented, should be the most viable method to reduce traffic congestions, since it does not rely on drivers’ choices. It reduces traffic by adapting to the current traffic flow, accounting for the unpredictability of traffic. This solution costs around $30,000 to $50,000 dollars to implement, and can vary depending on existent technology and type of brand system used.

The addition of multiple HOV lanes requires the most implementation costs, since lanes need to be converted. Despite showing improvement in other states, HOV lanes have shown minimal viability in densely populated cities in Texas.

The reduction of toll road costs requires minimal implementation costs. Reduction of costs enables more drivers to use toll roads, solving the lack of usage. No extra roads need to be constructed for this solution, but the success of this solution still relies on the drivers’ willingness to pay. In conclusion, it is recommended to modify traffic lights and reduce toll road costs to improve traffic control in Austin.

Austin’s Bad Reputation on Traffic Worsens

Austin has now become a home for many from other states, and as a result, traffic is increasing. The ongoing population increase means more drivers on the road. According to the TomTom Traffic Index, Austin has topped the rankings for Texas regarding traffic congestion in 2018 (Egan, 2019). Above Dallas’s, Houston’s, and San Antonio’s ranking, Austin’s traffic congestion should be of importance, since Austin is relatively smaller than those three cities.

Environmental Impacts on Residents of Austin

Traffic congestion is harmful to Austin’s civilians through environmental harm and accidents. Though traffic indicates Austin’s strong global economy, mentions TomTom’s Vice President of Traffic Information, the environmental impact of traffic is huge (Egan, 2019). The longer vehicles are on the road, the longer the vehicles emit gases into the environment. This is potentially dangerous to civilians who inhale these gases.

Road Accidents

Austin, compared to 2018, has seen a 30% increase in traffic fatalities in 2019 for the dates of January 1st till May 18th. There were 29 fatal crashes compared to 2018’s 22 fatal crashes during that time frame. According to Chief Manley and the quantitative data, Austin’s growing population has led to the increase in traffic, which, as a result, has led to an increase in fatalities (Moreno, 2019). Traffic congestion triggers “road rage” and tempts distracted driving. Waiting for hours causes impatient drivers to weave through traffic and bored drivers to look at their phones. Both distracted driving and impatient driving potentially lead to accidents. The identified qualitative and quantitative harm can be reduced with improvements to Austin’s traffic control.

Toll Roads Have Failed to Reduce Traffic

The currently enforced solution, toll roads, fails to show evident improvement in Austin’s traffic problem. Toll roads’ high prices prevent many drivers of certain income levels to use them. Some drivers, who were interviewed about toll roads, mentioned they would rather wait longer than pay the high toll road fee (Horansky, 2010). Though traffic signals minimize accidents and create safe intersection crossings, the improper and outdated planning of signal times leads to unnecessary vehicle stoppages. Houston and Dallas utilize HOV lanes, while Austin, on the other hand, simply relies on toll roads to reduce traffic. Without a free option to get through peak road times, drivers crowd the main roads. A surplus of vehicles on common roads causes multiple traffic congestions. The potential solutions to improve traffic control in Austin include modifying the traffic lights, adding multiple HOV lanes, and reducing toll road costs.

Potential Solutions to Austin’s Traffic Problem

There are three identified solutions that can potentially improve Austin’s traffic control. The first solution is the modification of traffic lights/signals in areas where signals have been the primary cause for congestions. The second solution is the addition of multiple HOV lanes, such as the ones used in cities like Dallas and Houston. The final solution is the reduction of toll road costs to increase toll road usage.

1. Modification of Traffic Lights/Signals

Modifying traffic lights is a potential solution to improving traffic control because properly adjusted traffic lights ease the flow of traffic. Currently used technology can broadcast industry standard Basic Safety Messages, which indicate vehicle position, motion, and more (“CITY OF AUSTIN FIRST IN TEXAS TO TEST TRAFFIC SIGNAL TECHNOLOGY FOR “CONNECTED” VEHICLES”, 2018). According to a study by the Federal Highway Administration, adding adaptivity to these traffic signals can improve travel time by 10% on average (Myer & Stump, n.d.). As a result of these potential changes, traffic is projected to be reduced.

Some signals have previously programmed times, where it could be longer in the morning and shorter at night or vice versa. These outdated timing plans don’t include the unpredictability of traffic. According to the Federal Highway administration, adaptive traffic signals can improve travel time by as much as 50% at intersections utilizing outdated timing plans (Myer & Stump, n.d.). The modification of traffic lights/signals addresses this problem through adaptivity and synchronization.

Synchronizing the traffic lights in Austin would improve the original system by preventing unnecessary red light stops. Adaptivity would improve the original system by accommodating the unpredictability of traffic. If a majority of traffic lights were adaptive to the traffic trends, and synchronized with the other traffic lights, Austin’s traffic problem would potentially improve.

2. Addition of Multiple HOV Lanes

Adding multiple HOV lanes is a potential solution to improving traffic control because this would reduce the number of vehicles on the specific highways or roads the HOV runs along. HOV lanes, or High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, are lanes for vehicles carrying at least the posted minimum number of passengers. Dallas and Houston utilize the two-passenger minimum. HOV lanes tend to move multiple vehicles into one lane, still causing multiple traffic congestions. Multiple HOV lanes would, on the other hand, ease traffic into multiple lanes.

Austin relies heavily on toll roads rather than HOV lanes. HOV lanes are existent in highly populated cities, such as Dallas and Houston. Though those cities are known for traffic, Austin still remains higher in the ranking (Egan, 2019). These HOV lanes include generally higher speed limits than the normal lanes to promote HOV lane usage. If set to the right minimum based off of traffic trends, the addition of multiple HOV lanes can address Austin’s traffic problem by reducing the number of vehicles on the road.

HOV lanes persuade drivers to carpool or share vehicles when going during peak times, such as when people go to and come back from work. There would potentially be more high-occupancy vehicles on highways compared to the present. With the intention of promoting carpooling, HOV lanes theoretically reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

Figure 2 Loop 1, SH 45 North, and SH 45 Southeast Toll Road Costs

Figure 2 Loop 1, SH 45 North, and SH 45 Southeast Toll Road Costs

3. Reduction of Toll Road Costs

Reducing toll road costs is the final solution in this paper to potentially improve traffic control. Toll roads would not be constructed or renovated in architectural form. Toll roads would simply be reduced from their current prices as shown in the figure above. The figure does not include a few other toll roads in usage.

Theoretically, toll roads should have solved Austin’s traffic problem by now. The cost has been a popular response for not using toll roads. For example, the SH-130 toll was opened to reduce congestion on I-35. According to KVUE helicopter footage, the SH-130 toll was close to empty, while I-35 was still congested (Horansky, 2010). Some drivers in Austin mentioned that toll roads were either unaffordable or harmful to budget if regularly used (Samuels, 2017). There could be more drivers unwilling to pay toll roads out there, which is evident by the lack of toll road usage. The reduction of prices addresses this problem by making the prices favorable for the drivers.

Reducing the costs to a reasonable price would enable drivers to spend the small amount to use the toll road. The price reductions would be initiated after speculation of income levels for drivers in Austin. Drivers not willing to pay for toll roads would still persist, but more drivers would be encouraged to use toll roads for combination of lower prices and faster travel time. Both the toll roads and highways, as a result, would have a free flow of vehicles.

The Criteria Necessary to Make Decisions on Traffic Control

This article analyzes the criteria of viability, implementation cost, and public acceptance of the potential solutions to improving traffic control in Austin.

  • Viability is how successfully the solution will work to improve traffic control. This is the most important criterion, since the ability for a solution to fix traffic congestions determines its implementation.
  • Implementation cost is how much spending the potential solutions may need in order to implement them in the city. This is the second most important criterion, since the spending necessary for a solution helps decide whether or not it should be implemented.
  • Public acceptance is how a specific solution will be accepted by Austin drivers and pedestrians. This is the least important criterion, but still important to address in this paper. This is because improvements to traffic control have an immediate effect on Austin’s civilians, and votes may be needed for funding approval.

Viability of Modifying Traffic Lights/Signals

Current traffic lights have not been a viable option during peak times. It is perceived that Austin’s traffic lights are never completely synchronized (Young, 2017). Traffic lights either use a pre-programmed timing system or basic detection system. The pre-programmed system estimates peak times beforehand, while the detection system detects a stopped vehicle at an empty intersection. A traffic light that adapts to the unpredictability of traffic, as discussed, is a potential solution. Modifying traffic lights to detect the distance of vehicles waiting at the intersection creates that adaptivity, in addition to the synchronization. This could potentially be a viable option to easing traffic congestions.

Spending will be necessary to modify Austin’s current traffic lights for adaptivity and synchronization. According to data from the Laboratory for Adaptive Traffic Operations & Management at Florida Atlantic University, adaptive traffic light systems averages between $30,000 and $50,000. Though prices may vary from different brand systems, they should generally fall within or close to that range (Myer & Stump, n.d.). Since some Austin traffic lights already have detection technology installed to obtain traffic information, these specific installments should be cheaper than the stated price.

The current system of traffic lights fails to garner public acceptance. Drivers have to sit through several light cycles before getting a green (O’Donnell, 2018). Not only does this lead to traffic congestions, but also to frustration for drivers. Newer modification to traffic lights should appeal to the public to prevent the multiple stoppages. With the adaptivity feature added to traffic lights, traffic congestions would reduce around the major intersections. Also, drivers would less likely make rash decisions in response to traffic congestions caused by traffic lights. Public acceptance of these traffic lights would be garnered, since wait times would reduce.

Viability of Adding Multiple HOV Lanes

Usage of HOV lanes have demonstrated a high level of viability compared to current toll roads. HOV lanes in Houston are promoted by METRO and the Texas DOT for not only reducing traffic congestion, but also the number of vehicles (“High-Occupancy Vehicle Lanes”, 2015). Studies from the University of Utah Traffic Lab show that HOV lanes have effectively reduced travel time during peak time periods (“A Limited Review of HOV Lanes”, 2010). The studies’ numerical results were not provided, but these studies were used by the Utah government. With the HOV limit set to the correct minimum in relation to the vehicle usage, HOV lanes are a viable option.

Spending would be necessary for adding HOV lanes to Austin’s highways and roads. The implementation cost resides on whether conversion or construction is desired. The costs for conversion of normal lanes to HOV lanes will be discussed, since conversion is preferred over constructing newer lanes. In San Diego, the cost to convert two HOV lanes on I-15 to HOT lanes was $1.85 million (“Knowledge Resources”, 2000). Though this is a different conversion of a lane, this still approximates how much it costs to convert a lane serving one purpose to another lane serving another purpose. Also, this data is for San Diego, where costs for implementation should generally be higher than Austin’s.

The public acceptance of HOV lanes is better than that of toll roads, since HOV lanes are generally free. Vehicles must only exceed the minimum passenger limit to use HOV lanes. In the 1990s, 71 to 81 percent of motorists using the Katy HOV lanes felt HOV lanes were good modes of transportation (West, 1992). Since Houston’s population during that time was higher than Austin’s current population, this information is still valuable (“Historical Population: 1900 to 2017”, n.d.). Public acceptance would be garnered with HOV lanes’ projected reductions in travel times, as stated above and shown below in the figure.

Figure 3 Weighted Average of Incident Travel Time Savings on Houston HOV Lanes

Figure 3 Weighted Average of Incident Travel Time Savings on Houston HOV Lanes

Viability of Reducing Toll Road Costs

Reducing costs for toll roads acts as a viable option for creating more toll road users. Since a higher percentage of Texas supports the idea of less taxes, many civilians should favor paying less for toll roads. This is because many have to already pay for fluctuating gas prices. Reducing costs to a reasonable amount would attract more drivers to use toll roads during peak times. This method would prevent the need to build more roads, while at the same time splitting the traffic. This would potentially raise no viability concerns, since cost reductions are always a human preference. It is evident that drivers’ income levels pay a huge role in toll road usage, as shown below in the figure. It is assumed and shown that price is a consideration for toll road usage due to the driver’s income.

Figure 4 Income Profile of Toll Road Users and Non-Users

Figure 4 Income Profile of Toll Road Users and Non-Users

Minimal spending will be required to reduce toll road costs on bill boards. The only spending required will be to place the toll road costs on bill boards. If prices are displayed electronically, then the spending will be reduced. No additional lanes or highways are necessary to be spent on. Within the implementation cost, the maintenance spending will continue for current toll roads.

Toll roads lack the necessary public acceptance to make them effective in reducing traffic congestions. In 2017, the median income of Austin was around $67,000 (“Austin, TX”, 2017). According to the figure above, only around 20% would have used toll roads in 2017. In addition to that statistic, the percentage of toll road usage never exceeds 27% for all income levels. It is evident that toll roads fail to solve traffic congestions due to high prices. Theoretically, toll roads should solve the congestion problem, but drivers must be willing to pay the fees. That has proven to be an unlikely scenario.

Taking Action

All three solutions demonstrate a level of viability, garner public acceptance, and improve environmental impact. The implementation costs for the three solutions vary. Modifications to traffic lights demonstrate a high level of viability if implemented. The adaptivity, in addition to the synchronization, of traffic lights enable lights to adapt to the current flow of traffic. In comparison, the addition of HOV lanes demonstrates a lower level of viability. HOV lanes are solely dependent on whether drivers choose to carpool or drive by themselves. Reduction of toll road costs demonstrates a higher level of viability. The cheaper toll roads are, the more likely drivers will use them. Since all three solutions lack additional spending for drivers to use them, the public acceptance is at a higher level. The cost to implement HOV lanes remains the highest due to lane conversion costs. The spending required to reduce toll road costs is the least, while modification of traffic lights fall in the middle.

With all this information in mind, the following recommendation is intended to improve traffic control in the best way(s) as possible. It is recommended that some of these solutions are looked at to implement in Austin.

improving-austins-traffic-control

The addition of HOV lanes will not be recommended. Houston and Dallas utilize HOV lanes, but rank around the top of the traffic index. Though both cities rank below Austin, it remains a concern that HOV lanes failed to produce necessary results in both Dallas and Houston. Modifications to traffic lights/signals require more spending to implement, but will reduce traffic congestion by large amounts. The unpredictability and changing of traffic call for a system that can adapt to need. Reduction of toll road costs require less spending, but relies on civilian decisions. Based off of responses, toll roads have been avoided greatly due to costs. This would make this solution a potential alternate. After careful consideration, the modification of traffic lights/signals and reduction of toll road costs are recommended to improve traffic control in Austin.

Sources

  • A Limited Review of HOV Lanes(Rep. No. ILR2010-C). (2010, July 20). Retrieved https://le.utah.gov/audit/10_cilr.pdf
  • Austin Area Toll Roads. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.txtag.org/en/about/tollroad_austin_area.shtml
  • Austin, TX. (2017). Retrieved from https://datausa.io/profile/geo/austin-tx/
  • City of Austin first in Texas to test traffic signal technology for "connected" vehicles. (2018, October 25). Retrieved from http://www.austintexas.gov/news/city-austin-first-texas-test-traffic-signal-technology-“connected”-vehicles
  • Egan, J. (2019, June 10). Austin stuck on new list of world's most traffic-congested cities. Retrieved from http://austin.culturemap.com/news/city-life/06-10-19-austin-drives-into-ranking-as-one-of-most-traffic-congested-cities-tomtom-index/
  • Fenno, D. W., Benz, R. J., Vickich, M. J., Theiss, L., Ranft, S. E., Ungemah, D. H., & Goodin, G. D. (2006). IMPROVED QUANTIFICATION OF HIGH-OCCUPANCY VEHICLE (HOV) LANE DELAY SAVINGS: YEAR TWO RESULTS(Rep.). Retrieved from https://static.tti.tamu.edu/tti.tamu.edu/documents/0-4740-3.pdf
  • Hausdorfer, G. (2011, August 17). Toll roads can help cities ease expensive congestion. Retrieved from https://www.chron.com/opinion/outlook/article/Toll-roads-can-help-cities-ease-expensive-2081233.php
  • High-Occupancy Vehicle Lanes. (2015, August 24). Retrieved from https://www.transportation.gov/mission/health/High-Occupancy-Vehicle-Lanes
  • Historical Population: 1900 to 2017 [PDF]. (n.d.). Houston.
  • Horansky, A. (2010, May 7). Big rigs still drive on I-35, despite alternative routes. Retrieved from http://corridornews.blogspot.com/2010/05/traffic-remains-congested-on-i-35-and.html
  • Ji, M., & Lin, C. (n.d.). Austin Traffic. Retrieved from https://www.austintexasinsider.com/austintraffic.html
  • Knowledge Resources. (2000). Retrieved from https://www.itscosts.its.dot.gov/ITS/benecost.nsf/ID/3DC8D982EBF6C274852573E7006D647F?OpenDocument&Query=CApp
  • Moreno, C. (2019, May 18). 'Concerning to us': Chief Manley says trends show rise in Austin traffic fatalities. Retrieved from https://www.kxan.com/news/local/austin/concerning-to-us-chief-manley-says-trends-show-rise-in-austin-traffic-fatalities/
  • O'Donnell, A. (2018, September 22). Austin Answered: Why are the traffic lights in Austin timed so poorly? Retrieved from https://www.statesman.com/news/20170823/austin-answered-why-are-the-traffic-lights-in-austin-timed-so-poorly
  • Pantak, M. (2017, August 17). Do Synchronized Traffic Lights Really Solve Congestion Woes? Retrieved from https://blog.esurance.com/do-synchronized-traffic-lights-really-solve-congestion-woes/
  • Prozzi, J., Persad, K., Flanagan, K., Loftus-Otway, L., Porterfield, B., Rutzen, B., . . . Walton, M. C. (2010, January). TOLL ROADS: WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT FORECASTING USAGE AND THE CHARACTERISTICS OF TEXAS USERS(Rep. No. 0-6044-P1). Retrieved https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/76d7/49d70d48a00fa9ed471291fd0787073a4c7d.pdf
  • Samuels, A. (2017, November 17). Texans driven mad as tolls burn holes in their wallets. Retrieved from https://www.texastribune.org/2017/11/17/texans-driven-mad-tolls-burn-holes-their-wallets/
  • Stump, E., & Myer, D. (n.d.). Adaptive Traffic Signals Reduce Delay, Increase Safety, and Improve Public Satisfaction. Retrieved from http://www.hrg-inc.com/adaptive-traffic-signals-reduce-delay-increase-safety-and-improve-public-satisfaction/?print=print
  • Thornton, R. (2019, February 12). Austin traffic deaths outlier in statewide trend. Retrieved from https://www.austinmonitor.com/stories/2019/02/austin-traffic-deaths-outlier-in-statewide-trend/
  • West, K. (1992). HOUSTON HOV USERS: HOW THEY USE AND VIEW HOVs(Rep. No. 484-14S). Retrieved from https://static.tti.tamu.edu/tti.tamu.edu/documents/484-14S.pdf
  • Widner, C. (2017, September 21). Is the plan to cap I-35 in Downtown Austin doomed? Retrieved from https://austin.curbed.com/2017/9/21/16347436/austin-reconnect-cap-i35-highway-downtown-plan
  • Young, G. (2019, January 25). Why Are Austin's Traffic Signals Never Timed Well? Retrieved from https://gyounglaw.com/austins-traffic-signals-never-timed-well/

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 Ashok Meyyappan