The U.S. is not alone in traffic nightmares. Remember that 60-mile traffic jam in China last summer that literally lasted for days? If things keep progressing the way they have been, the entire world could be facing gridlock like that, says Ford Chairman Bill Ford.
There is some irony in the fact that it's Ford who is making this prediction, given that he's the great-grandson of Henry Ford, the man who made it possible for the average man to buy a car by applying the assembly line to car production. "Wheels for the World" has long been a Ford mantra, and is even the title of a book about the company's history.
It was also Detroit automakers that were instrumental in killing the Detroit street car industry in the last century, driving demand for automobiles by eliminating public transportation options.
But in a recent opinion piece at CNN.com, Ford said there needs to be more emphasis on alternative modes of transportation. He predicted the number of cars on the road will grow from 800 million cars on the road today to about 2 to 4 billion by mid-century.
"The world's roads are going to become too crowded," he said in a recent column. "Commutes will become longer; traffic jams will become larger and more ubiquitous. Economic opportunity will be stifled."
IBM released a study last year, called the Global Commuter Pain survey. The name alone hints that the study showed there are problem areas. Major traffic problems plague some of the world's most economically important cities, with traffic jams "longer and more grueling than expected," the study said.
Beijing and Mexico City were the worst cities, followed by Johannesburg, Moscow and New Delhi. Sao Paulo, Milan, Buenos Aires, Madrid, London and Paris were also problematic.
Proper investment in mass transit drives economies
In many metro areas, such as the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and around Moscow, there has been insufficient investment in mass transit, such as trains. Demand in many areas outstrips supply of train lines and infrastructure, leading many commuters to opt for the privacy and control of their own car rather than an unpleasant, over-crowded, unpredictable commuter train.
In China, the rising middle class is a big part of the problem. The number of new cars registered in the first four months of 2010 jumped 23.8%, IBM said. Rapid growth like that is part of the problem across the world. And even as China's infrastructure -- roads, bridges and tunnels -- grows at a breakneck pace, it will have a hard time keeping up with the growth of automobiles and the desire among Chinese consumers to be mobile.
"The congestion in many of today's developing cities is a relatively recent phenomenon, having paralleled the rapid economic growth of those cities during the past decade or two," the study said. "By contrast, the traffic in places like New York, Los Angeles or London has developed gradually over many decades, giving officials more time and resources to address the problem."
IBM has an interest in solving the problem because the big tech and logistics giant develops some of the tools to solve these problems. And Ford has an interest, too, since the automaker is testing out many emerging technologies in its vehicles.
Cars that can talk to each other and roads that can sense how much traffic is driving across the streets can help ease the problem, along with more mass transportation and finding new ways to move people around, Ford said. Also, Ford's in-car electronics can marry up GPS navigation with real time traffic reports to guide drivers away from jams and onto alternate routes.
A model city you have never heard of
And in an odd move for a man that runs a car company, Ford held up Masdar City in Abu Dhabi -- a city most Americans have probably never heard of and couldn't find on a map -- as an example of a place that is already addressing traffic issues. Masdar City is being built from the ground up with no internal combustion engines allowed in the city. "People will get around on foot or bike above ground or with driverless 'pods' beneath the city," he said.
Bill Ford was one of the first auto industry leaders to start pushing environmental issues, and spurring his company to develop hybrid vehicles and green technology back in the early 2000s when gas prices were low and even some of his own staff was in opposition. Now, with demand for such vehicles established, and government mandates to produce more fuel efficient vehicles in place, he says society needs to address global gridlock "with the same passion."
"We are starting to make progress, but we've got a long way to go," he said.
Bottom Line: While there is talk and actual investment in high-speed trains linking cities in the Midwest states of the U.S., the best investments are probably made in improving rail travel in the most congested metro areas. Better infrastructure for mass transit, especially clean-running mass transit, will create jobs, alleviate traffic jams that sap productivity, improve property values and quality of life and reduce smog pollution in population centers. One of the problems, though, is that states often don't have enough money and lawmakers from heartland states resent having federal tax dollars spent on rail systems that don't benefit them.