Urban Mobility

Beating the Holiday Traffic: Strategies to Break the Bottleneck

By Edmund Sandoval


The holiday season has long been synonymous with scrambling to purchase last-minute gifts, gnawing through bricks of fruitcake, and lurching along congested roads and highways. While the most severe snarls occur in urban centers, the holidays also find suburban and more rural, low-density inhabitants in a frantic rush to the nation’s airports. Holiday travel has grown so bad, bypassing this annual logjam has become an obsession, with millions of travelers doing all they can — leaving work early, checking travel apps, or just putting pedal to the medal — to miss the worst and make flights without leaving luggage or children behind.


The influx of holiday travelers is inevitable. But while it may not be apparent to commuters trapped in the traffic crawl, cities are similarly obsessed with reducing congestion in both the short-and long-term.


Solutions for the short-term

Public Information

“The best short-term efforts are often simply public information,” says Commute Seattle’s Executive Director Jonathan Hopkins. “It encourages two things: More people telecommute,” which has a more direct impact on regular commuter routes and schedules, and “more people take buses and trains, or carpool.” Fewer vehicles on the road means, quite simply, less traffic to maneuver.


Public information also serves to increase commuter awareness of holiday-specific public transit schedules and offers. Take Metra, Chicago’s commuter rail service, and its plan to schedule more trains during peak travel days, as well as well as reduce ticket rates. As Metra CEO/Executive Director Don Orsen says, “Leave the car at home and let Metra do the driving.”




Parking Perks

To help alleviate traffic bottlenecks at transit hubs, one consideration, which may seem counterintuitive, is offering the free short-term parking. For example, the BWI Marshall Airport in Baltimore intends to offer the first hour in its hourly parking garage for free during the holidays. In theory, this should ease airport traffic that can back up all the way to Interstates 195 and 97 as drivers pick up and drop off passengers. Additionally, increasing the number of available spots at cell phone lots gives drivers more room to park while they wait for out-of-town family and friends to arrive, rather than circling the terminal.



When possible, those traveling from suburban regions can consider ‘chaining’ – not chaining-up to drive in snow, although that’s also often required around the holidays – but rather traveling via personal vehicle or rideshare to a Park and Ride. The benefits are numerous, as the use of Park and Ride lots is often free, the cost of a ticket on public transit much less costly than the cost of parking at most airport parking lots, and, most beneficial, there’s no traffic to contend with.
Solutions for the long-term




Solutions for the long-term

Smarter Cities

Because humans are imperfect creatures and thus imperfect drivers (consider the weak enforcement of traffic rules and the often erratic behavior of drivers), some cities are turning to technology and the concept of smart cities. According to Jonathan Hopkins, “Smart cities are all about choices, and making more transportation choices visible, understandable, and usable for more and more people.”


To that end, cities and their transit authorities have been researching and implementing technologies to improve traffic congestion during the holiday season and beyond. A few examples of these technologies are:

– Adaptive traffic signals that monitor traffic flow and length of time that vehicles idle at stop lights in order to improve signal timing;

– Real-time traffic feedback and smart corridors incorporate vehicle-to-infrastructure technologies to “capture vehicle-generated traffic data, wirelessly providing information such as advisories from the infrastructure to the vehicle that inform the driver of safety, mobility or environment-related conditions;”

– Car sharing and multi-modal systems which make it easy to grab a car through a private company’s app, and seamlessly integrate public transit into their journey.


As Jonathan Hopkins notes, “It’s all about being more efficient with our public spaces. Really great smart city technologies allow people to bridge together pieces that work for them based on the time they have available, the money they have available, and what they’re carrying with them, so they don’t have to plan an hour buffer” just to get home for the holidays.