The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran a major story in November 2011 titled “The Hidden Toll of Traffic Jams.” The objective of intelligent highways is to move vehicles and their passengers along in a safe, non-congested manner to their work places or for shopping or sightseeing. Though the WSJ is more focused on the U.S., it included the frustrations and bad health results of traffic congestion that occur globally. In the U.S., the Washington, DC area had the most wasted hours for commuters in 2010 followed by Chicago and New York.
Where are the “hidden tolls” most serious? Los Angeles is the most congested city in the U.S. There are high levels of traffic fumes from the freeways and these toxic gases may extend to cars 1.5 miles way. Children born to mothers living within 1,000 feet of a major road or freeway in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Sacramento were twice as likely to have autism. In China, third graders in the city of Quanzhou exposed to high levels of traffic exhaust did more poorly on cognitive and behavior tests than children in a nearby area. Congested cities are becoming test tubes for scientists studying the impact of traffic fumes on the brain.
Roadways choked with traffic impact brain cells and synapses key to learning and memory and are implicated in heart disease, cancer, and respiratory ailments. The evidence is largely circumstantial but worrisome. Cars and trucks of 2011 generate one-tenth of the pollution of a vehicle in 1970. The opposite side of that is that there are many many times more people and vehicles on the roads than in 1970. Breathing “normal” city air with high levels of traffic exhaust for 90 days can change the way that genes turn on or off among the elderly and can have a molecular mark on the genome of a newborn for life. Children in areas affected by high levels of emissions, on average, scored more poorly on intelligence tests and were more prone to depression and anxiety problems than children that breathed clean air. Emissions may heighten the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. How to pay for curing the ills of highway transportation is an issue.
Can intelligent highways and transportation help change this problem? Yes they can, but results are not instantaneous. The first chapter of this review includes focus snapshots of several countries that have been featured in The Intelligent Highway newsletter in 2011. Current population figures are from “The Economist” and its “World in Figures.”