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By Katharine Boddington, Managed Motorways Coordinator at ARRB

As engineers within the road and transport industry, we tackle a myriad of problems to improve the efficiency and productivity of Australia’s road network. There is one issue that still brings the country to a standstill: congestion.

We have more vehicles on the road network and more people travelling by various modes of transport than ever before. With a growing population, congestion will only continue to worsen.

Infrastructure plans often look to new roads, bridges, public transport routes and bike paths to ease the strain on the existing road network. In many areas, however, new infrastructure is simply not possible – there is a finite amount of road space available with increasing demand for its use and, more importantly, roads are incredibly expensive to build and have negative environmental impacts.

So if new infrastructure is not going to be possible, how can we treat congestion?

There are a range of options at the disposal of road agencies to help improve traffic flow, including a toolkit of technologies and operational strategies that allow road operators to manage traffic on motorways, the most productive asset in the road system.

Referred to as Managed Motorways, this toolkit allows road agencies to control access to the motorway via traffic lights on entry ramps and then manage vehicle speed and lane use to maximize use of the full motorway pavement (including emergency lanes), while regularly providing accurate real-time information to drivers regarding traffic conditions.

Managed Motorways is a concept used worldwide and has been applied in different ways across different jurisdictions, but with the same objectives: to improve freeway productivity and travel efficiency, reliability and safety.

Researchers in Australia have pioneered network-wide management systems for ramp metering – the system of traffic lights that allows one-to-two vehicles access to the motorway from an entry ramp at a time – that are meticulously engineered to reduce congestion and alleviate stress on heavily used roads.

Every additional minute that passenger and commercial vehicles spend in traffic is precious minutes of productivity lost. The avoidable social cost of congestion for Australia is predicted to be $20 billion per year by 20201, a staggering figure which creates a real imperative for road agencies to ensure motorways can maintain the maximum possible vehicle capacity and flow throughout the day and thereby better support economic and social development.

Why is congestion such a big issue?

Congestion is frustrating because it reduces the reliability of travel time. On one given day, travelling from one suburb to another could take 25 minutes – the next, it might take 45. That additional and unexpected 20 minutes creates unwanted stress and it is this unreliability that upsets drivers and makes congestion so painful.

The full article can be read in the February/March 2015 Edition of Roads & Civil Works Magazine.

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