Anyone who drives knows that traffic congestion is bad — for drivers and their communities. The frustration and stress are bad enough, but there is plenty of data showing that traffic is bad for our health (one study estimates the health costs of traffic congestion at about $31 billion annually) and bad for the local economy (Forbes recently estimated the collective cost of sitting in traffic to be about $124 billion every year, rising to $186 billion by 2030).

Data, however, isn’t just a way to define the problem. For many cities, data is also a way of dealing with, and sometimes eliminating, the problem.

Beyond inconvenience

Lani Ingram, Vice President of Smart Communities at Verizon, understands the impact traffic has on every aspect of our lives. “When we meet with government leaders across the nation, traffic always tends to be one of the top issues that they're dealing with,” she reports. “Traffic impacts people’s lives more than just the inconvenience. There are issues of access, air quality, and economics as well.”

For many cities, data is also a way of dealing with, and sometimes eliminating, the problem.

Gabe Klein, author and former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation and former Director of the District of Columbia Department of Transportation, agrees. “We have some problems that we've created for ourselves: land use challenges, cultural challenges and political challenges that manifest themselves in transportation issues.” Klein thinks cities have to take a more ‛holistic’ view of traffic management. “It's not just about alleviating traffic or adding another lane on the freeway. It's really about looking at quality of life and what makes a city great.”

Big data and IoT

Ingram and Verizon’s Smart Communities division works with cities to implement Internet of Things (IoT) connected intelligent traffic solutions leveraging Verizon’s leading 4G network. Using live cellular data or sensors deployed along roadways, cities  can predict and manage traffic flow and plan future multi-modal transportation strategies.“It’s not so much ‛big’ data as it is relevant data,” Ingram says. “Verizon’s Intelligent Traffic Management (ITM) and Traffic Data Services (TDS) provides meaningful, predictive analytics.”

Klein sees these sorts of partnerships between companies and municipalities as essential. “It's not just about the tech, it's about the policies, it's about cities being up front and engaged with the private sector. That's the future — reinventing the public-private partnership.”

Public-private partnerships

Kansas City is often referred to as the world’s ‛most connected city.’ Its chief innovation officer, Bob Bennett, agrees wholeheartedly. “You're going to see many, many more public-private partnerships. Most cities like Kansas City spend the vast majority of their operations and maintenance funding on public safety resources, and there isn't anything left over for investments like a smart city platform. I can't bond a thirty-year bond to fund smart infrastructure because most technology becomes obsolete in five years.”

“Many smaller cities don't have their own IT departments,” Ingram points out. “So they're looking for somebody to help manage that for them. And when you have more information on a real-time basis, that allows a city to put their dollars in areas that are going to make a difference.”

Bennett also thinks the ‛smart city’ model is the future. “Data is the heart of your smart city model. Within ten years the term ‛smart city’ is going to go away. My daughter is sixteen. Ten years from now, she’s not going to think about what a smart city is or isn’t, for her it’s just going to be her world. If we don’t put ourselves into that world as a city, we’re going to become the digital rust belt.”

One thing is sure: technological advances combined with forward-thinking city partnerships have the potential to affect more than just the future of traffic jams, they can change everything for the better.