Epilogue: Transforming Transportation

Epilogue: Transforming Transportation McGill University

| Skip to search Skip to navigation Skip to page content

User Tools (skip):

Sign in | Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Sister Sites: McGill website | myMcGill

McGill News
ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
McGill News cover

| Help
Page Options (skip): Larger
Home > McGill News > 2001 > Winter 2001-2002 > Epilogue: Transforming Transportation
Transforming Transportation: Solving the Traffic Jam

Major technological breakthroughs are like buses: you wait ages for one to come and suddenly, three or four appear at once. In the field of transportation, debates are abundant but actual applications are less forthcoming. Where air travel once made the world smaller, telecommunications is now the key driver of globalization in the Information Age. It's time to recast transportation as the catalyst for a new social order in developed countries.

This role isn't entirely new: how could North America have developed without transcontinental railroads? But our modern transportation infrastructure has left us stonewalled in a society built around the "infernal" combustion automobile. Alternative-fuel cars will be at best a transitory solution: true progress can only be achieved by a combination of radically new urban planning and using IT to its fullest potential.

In cities like Miami, the costs of transportation exceed those of shelter. Commuters have to rely on the car for even the most basic errand. The first course of action should be to reverse the suburbia phenomenon. City planners should extend the concept of industrial parks to accelerate the migration of knowledge jobs out of the downtown core -- to transform shopping-mall based economies into technological hubs. This would result in, say, the "Photonics Borough," where firms involved in technologies like fibre-optics would regroup and reap the benefits of synergy. These clusters would be self-sufficient, considerably reducing the need for commuting and revitalizing areas that are now described as cultural wastelands.

This transformation can be facilitated by advances in teleworking and e-commerce (work or goods coming to you rather than the opposite). However, telecommunications advances won't necessarily make transportation less relevant. Think how online relationships lead to people travelling to meet. E-commerce studies show that online comparison shopping leads to offline trips to the mall. And where will we get enough courier trucks to deliver the 5 trillion dollars worth of e-commerce that is projected globally by 2005?

There is a pressing need for faster progress in air, ground and sea transportation. One possible answer could be in the bigger and faster planes in development at Boeing and Airbus. The French TGV train could have a huge potential in the Northeast corridor of the U.S. For economic progress to be sustainable, transportation has to keep pace.

For now, we cannot escape the reality of bottlenecks in our cities. Some argue that building more roads could solve the problem. This would most likely generate even more problems since the more roads there are, the more city dwellers tend to move to the suburbs and use their cars to go to work. We must design a solution that would address both traffic and pollution problems.


The installation of toll roads is an interesting initiative, but unfortunately not one widely implemented. By making people pay for their use of the roads based on area, time of the day and level of pollution, and a properly designed pricing scheme, it is possible to control the level of pollution and traffic. This is not another theoretical market solution that fails in practice. A successful implementation has been done in Singapore, resulting in what is arguably the only place on Earth that doesn't have either traffic jams or pollution!

The downtown area there is accessible only by paying a fee. To enter, cars pay according to the area, the hour and the level of pollution of the day. Prices are constantly adjusted in order to maintain the right amount of traffic. Car ownership requires a license, a limited number of which can be purchased at monthly auctions. The number plates indicate the possible use of each vehicle; for instance, a plate that allows the owner to drive at any time is much more expensive than a plate for driving at off-peak hours.

Clearly, Singapore has found a way to circumvent traffic jams without spending millions on its roads, and revenues generated by this system enable the government to reduce taxation. So if it works, why is it not more widespread? One obvious caveat is that the government would be interfering with something as economically vital as access to the roads. Many people would not accept a system that allows the wealthy to drive more than the poor.

A variant is possible, whereby drivers are given a fixed amount of driving credit. Vehicles could be equipped with bar codes that would be read by scanners scattered across the city. Every time a car passes a scanner, a certain amount of time is subtracted from the driver's "account." Inside the car, a display indicates how much the driver is "charged."

For those who believe that the right to drive should not be influenced by income, a solution could be that those who drive less can sell unused credit to those who drive more. Instead of increasing the municipal tax income, this would generate revenue for those who decide to live near their workplace or to use public transportation, providing both an incentive to be less reliant on cars and a wealth redistribution mechanism.

It's time to rethink transportation as a tool to accomplish broader social and economic objectives -- and to hope that a bunch of buses are just around the corner.

Mathieu Leduc is a McGill Electrical Engineering student.

view sidebar content | back to top of page