Many people are just starting to realize some of the challenges facing cities and states as they grapple with ways to solve their various transportation problems. It is without a doubt—one that everyone who lives in a city or commutes to one ought to be interested in. Slightly more than half of all people live in cities today, but that is rapidly changing.

Numbers from the United Nations estimates the percentage of people clustered around urban centers globally is going to grow from 55% to 68% by 2050. This trend is called urbanization and this change is only going to bring new and exacerbated transportation challenges.

Transportation is one of the key reasons so many cities are looking to the IoT (Internet of Things) for not only help, but guidance and direction to drive many of the changes that are coming down the many roads ahead.

Transportation-related issues range from dilapidated infrastructure to road congestion, parking, and air quality. Let’s look for instance at what the Maryland Dept. of Transportation State Highway Admin. is doing to develop congestion-relief plans. The state has come up with a traffic relief plan to address the state’s congestion issues. In fact, you could even say it’s a perfect representation of what so many municipalities are doing—or should be doing—right now to address some of their transportation woes.

The purpose of this plan is to develop a solution or set of solutions that not only address congestion but also improve trip reliability and enhance multimodal mobility.

The Maryland DOT is conducting a study, collecting comments from stakeholders and the public, and moving toward an action plan, which it expects to release next spring.

This is a reactive effort to address current transportation needs, but it’s also proactive considering long-term traffic growth predictions due to urbanization.

So, let’s assume a whole bunch of cities and states are in this exact same boat.

What are their options? There’s the pure-infrastructure play: build. These “build” alternatives include constructing additional general-purpose lanes or “managed lanes” on freeways.

Whether it’s just an extra lane for everyone, an added HOV lane, an express lane, a contraflow lane, or a reversible lane, this strategy is solid as long as you have the time, resources, and space.

If a city or state doesn’t have the time, resources, or space to construct new lanes on highways, there are some other strategies that DOT’s like Maryland’s are considering. They could develop new transportation-management systems, which are basically strategies that improve the operation and coordination of transportation facilities.

There’s travel-demand management, which refers to strategies or incentives to provide the most efficient and effective use of existing transportation services. For instance, Maryland’s DOT says travel-demand management strategies could include rideshare and telecommuting promotions, managed lanes, road pricing, and so on.

We need to talk about traffic-based congestion pricing. Congestion pricing may ultimately be the best solution to traffic gridlock. We can add lanes here and there, but with as many people as urbanization will bring into our cities in the next few decades, it’s not going to be enough.

Instead, we may need to de-incentivize travel during peak periods by employing variable, traffic-based tolling. Connectivity will be key to this potential solution, since toll prices would need to change depending on traffic volume and demand.

For the Connected World feature in April on 5G and Future Transportation Systems, Professor Kara Kockelman of the University of Texas at Austin, feels strongly about congestion pricing and the concept of “travel credits.”

She believes, each month, toll revenues raised from this pricing structure should go back to residents who are staying local.

The idea is that by economically incentivizing people to avoid driving, especially during high-peak travel times, everyone can enjoy more reliable travel times and avoid the dreaded traffic gridlock.

Before moving on to another solution, it’s important to mention 5G’s potential role in congestion pricing. 5G could help enable this variable pricing, potentially even on a lane-by-lane basis, making it both plausible and efficient.

Of course, another potential solution to cities’ transportation problems is going to be autonomous vehicles. So much of traffic is caused by humans’ unpredictability. We think one lane is moving faster, so we move into that lane. When a bunch of people do this, it slows everyone down.

As human drivers, we also miss exits on the freeway, we pull in front of somebody and cause them to brake, and we take too long at stop signs deciding who has the right-of-way. When AV’s rule the roads, theoretically, none of this will happen. Vehicles will move around more efficiently, which will make traffic more predictable.

Personally, I look forward to those days. And that means for cities and states that are grappling with transportation issues: Building new lanes isn’t your only option. Technology is opening the door for new types of traffic-management solutions—ones that may be even more effective than more lanes in the long run. And that means we are on the verge of a paradigm shift in transportation.

In the future, urban mobility isn’t going to look like it does today. In fact, congestion-based pricing is going to play a role in how smart cities manage their roadways in coming years. In the long term, smart cities are going to require solutions to problems that we can’t even foresee at this point. As city managers work all this out, they will encounter new transportation challenges, and they will need to put IoT to work to solve them.

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