The region’s highway network is chronically congested. At all hours of the day, backups delay commuters, truck drivers, residents, and visitors alike. Some congestion occurs after an incident, such as a crash, breakdown, or construction work. Commutes that used to take 20 minutes now routinely take 30—and can sometimes take 45. Valuable hours are lost, which ultimately drains the economy—on top of causing stress, which can translate into deeper health hazards.
Expanding the highway network to ease congestion is no longer an option. In addition to an overall lack of available land, the region has learned that new highway lanes will fill up again in a matter of months or years. Diverting drivers to public transportation is worthwhile, but difficult, as taking the bus is rarely faster than driving, and rail infrastructure is tremendously expensive to build. Developing more compact neighborhoods will also help reduce traffic, but only in the long term.
And we don’t have that time. The region is choking on its traffic.
Today’s highway system can be more reliable—and even gain some capacity
We will never be able to meet the ever-growing demand for highway space by increasing the supply of highways. But we can get more out of existing infrastructure by eliminating the handful of bottlenecks that cause recurring problems, making travel movements more smooth and efficient, and using tolls to discourage or redirect travel, thereby reducing highway congestion without having to add new lanes.
Eliminate recurring highway bottlenecks
Key pinch points in the highway network cause a disproportionate number of delays. Many are due to the age and inadequate maintenance of our highway infrastructure. Major roadways and bridges are over half a century old, and need constant repair to meet modern standards, while more than 1,000 bridges are considered structurally deficient. Where feasible, departments of transportation should analyze choke points and prioritize them according to congestion.
In general, three types of improvements are the most effective in addressing recurring bottlenecks:
- Install breakdown lanes. Disabled vehicles having no place to park while waiting for emergency assistance or repair causes major backups. The Cross-Bronx Expressway and 25 miles of I-278 between New Jersey and Queens are particularly problematic. The installation of breakdown lanes should be prioritized based on the frequency of accidents, low travel speeds, and proximity to existing breakdown lanes.
- Add lanes where roadways narrow for short stretches and merges occur. Lanes should be added based on the severity of the congestion and the availability of space to add lanes.
- Widen ramps or add exit lanes. Certain ramps and exit lanes are no longer adequately sized to accommodate current demand—a result of a highway system that has not been recalibrated to more recent land use changes and travel patterns. One particularly striking example is the exit for I-80 off of I-287, a major interchange in New Jersey, where westbound traffic has dramatically increased since the interchange was built. Long queues extend back into the travel lanes and create a safety hazard.
Smooth the flow of vehicles
Traffic flow is most affected by sudden stops, many of which could be avoided with more widespread use of effective traffic-management policies.
Speed harmonization involves warning motorists and modulating speed limits in real time to reduce sudden stops that reverberate through the network. Speed harmonization, which is not in place in the region, can reduce serious crashes and their related traffic congestion consequences by at least 25 percent.
Ramp metering, which has been deployed successfully for decades on the Long Island Expressway, uses traffic signals at highway entrance ramps to more evenly insert vehicles into the flow of traffic. NYSDOT is already installing ramp meters at 13 locations along I-87/I-287 in Rockland and Westchester counties. This system should be installed wherever there is recurring congestion and there is sufficient space to hold waiting vehicles on the ramps.
Encourage group travel
Vehicles that carry a larger number of passengers—be they carpools, minivans, or large buses—should be given preferential treatment on highways. The most effective way to do this is to designate certain moving lanes for higher occupancy vehicles (HOV). Even though HOV lanes have been widely adopted across the U.S., there are only about 50 miles of HOV lanes in the region.
The most efficient HOV lane, by far, is the two-mile approach to the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey that is reserved for buses heading to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. While a typical traffic lane carries approximately 3,000 people in 2,000 cars each hour, the XBL lane can carry over 30,000 people in 700 buses during that same time period. The Port Authority should therefore convert a second lane of the Lincoln Tunnel for buses only.
Other good candidates for HOV lanes are on the New York State Thruway in Rockland County from West Nyack to the Mario Cuomo Bridge, and segments of Interstate 287 in Westchester County.
HOV lanes should be created by converting existing travel lanes rather than by adding new lanes to existing roads, which encourages further sprawl. And no new HOV lanes leading directly into Manhattan should be created, as this would encourage added car traffic in Manhattan and be a disincentive to use public transit.
Charge tolls that vary according to congestion levels
Only a very small share of the region’s highways is tolled today. Charging drivers to use highways—or any part of the region’s entire road network—would not only raise revenue, but could also be used to manage traffic. Tolls could have variable prices based on time of day or level of congestion, encouraging drivers to travel at off-peak times, use a less-crowded part of the road network, or redirect drivers to public transportation. Strategic toll-setting can be a tremendously effective tool to control congestion and ensure reliability on the road network.
Open up more highways to truck traffic
The movement of goods in the region is hampered by many segments of our highway network not allowing truck traffic, forcing trucks to use other, more-circuitous routes and ultimately clocking in additional miles on our already-congested highways.
Some of these truck-free roads were built as parkways, whose many features (such as tight turning radii, narrow lane widths, and low overhead clearances) would need to be reconstructed—a prohibitive price tag. But other highways could, with more minimal interventions, be retrofitted to allow trucks or, at least, lighter commercial vehicles. This would reduce the total number of miles driven by trucks in the region, and alleviate pressure on the most congested parts of the network.
Highways that could be opened up for lighter trucks include the Belt Parkway, FDR Drive, Henry Hudson Parkway, Cross Island, Ocean Parkway, and Jackie Robinson Parkway.
Continually reevaluate the opportunities offered by technology
Few cars are driverless today, but the autonomous features already standard on modern cars are changing the way cars “interact” with each other and with highways, and are an opportunity to make driving safer and more efficient. They reduce stop-and-go driving and create traffic flow that is safer and higher-capacity. They give drivers up-to-the-minute information about upcoming incidents and travel speeds, and suggest alternative routes.
In the next decade, as fully autonomous vehicles become more commonplace, transportation departments will have the opportunity to make our highways “smart”—using virtual cordons, geo-fencing, driving fees, and other measures to direct drivers toward or away from particular routes. Autonomous vehicles may be able to operate in platoons (groups of vehicles following each other at constant and identical speeds), which could increase highway capacity by 25 percent or more, and perhaps improve car reliability.
Paying for it
Most of the recommended traffic-management policies could be implemented with minimal capital investment. While actions to eliminate physical bottlenecks can cost in the tens or hundreds of millions, these improvements could be paid for using revenue from new tolls on interstates and major highways along with the eventual transition to fees based on the number of miles motorists drive.