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The Story

October 2010

“Finding Improvements – Traffic Management Systems” 

A visit to Paris by car this month highlighted what could be achieved if Britain’s traffic management systems were better designed. We drove 3 miles across Paris centre in just 15 minutes in a busy period (equivalent to 12 mph). In London we have experienced 20 minutes to go ½ mile (1.5 mph).

London mayor Boris Johnson has sanctioned a project (called Freeflow) to study what goes wrong and develop improvements to traffic management systems that could be replicated across the UK, and possibly the world. The UK market alone is estimated to be worth £1.2bn per year. Companies as large as IBM are developing new ‘intelligent’ TMS products.

Many traffic lights are useless or positively harmful

So says one traffic management expert, and many drivers would agree (including ourselves). You can experience massive queues in one direction with little or none in the cross-flow direction. Some lights seem designed to annoy drivers – they can be on red as you drive up to them then quickly change to green, but only after you have stopped.

The M25 - a classic example of human behavior and absurd signage 

The M25 around London relies for traffic management on variable speed limit signs and human response to the signs. The problem is that the signs seem (to us at least) out of sync with reality and many drivers simply ignore them. The result is the classic ‘phantom jams’ concertina effect of stop-and-go waves of traffic. This is a purely human-caused effect that occurs on any road above a certain traffic density. But the speed limit signs don’t help that much – we have experienced a signs sequence of 40, then 50, then 60, and then suddenly come up against a stationary queue. Ridiculous. Plenty scope for improvement here.

Looking for improvements - consumer indolence

Every driver gets frustrated by traffic jams but most people just curse and forget about it. We suspect very few people actually take the trouble to complain, even if they know who to complain to (which is unlikely). We believe this is typical across many product sectors, yet most companies are unaware of this potentially rich source of Improvement Ideas. The UK government is planning to spend £40m over the next five years on congestion studies – we hope they will include human behaviour research (which requires understanding HOW DRIVERS THINK). This requires engaging the People Thinking Style.

 

Analysis and Lessons

Creative Thinking ...  People Thinking …
Learning from Europe and Nature

Human interaction, and reaction to TMS

Another example from Paris could be well worth studying by traffic management systems designers – the Arc de Triomphe grand roundabout. This roundabout has about six or seven ‘lanes’ and an amazing number of intersections (a total of 12). This is probably the most complex junction in the world yet mostly works extremely well, albeit a little hair-raising. The reason is enforced human interaction. 

Drivers plot a course around the roundabout and stop-and-go their way across, making allowances for other vehicles entering and leaving the roundabout. The system works at a human level with little or no traffic management system. Seen from above, it would be very similar to a swarm of ants at an ant ‘crossroad’. We believe TMS designers should study nature a bit more, or at least how humans interact and also react with/to TMS devices and signage. This requires Creative Thinking and People Thinking.

The $multi-billion Creative Solution race

A lot of companies and organisations are racing to find the ideal solution to the problem. Ideas being studied range from computerised predictions of traffic flow in any given situation up to an hour ahead, to organising a batch of vehicles to function as a ‘platoon’ by remotely controlling each vehicle to maintain a constant gap between them. Somehow we can’t see drivers giving up control of their cars. The most likely idea to succeed will need a clever balance of Creative Thinking, Evaluative Thinking, and thinking how people are likely to respond (People Thinking). The rewards to the winner will be huge.


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