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UCLA study strives to reduce traffic and air pollution

By Alexia Boyarsky
Originally published in the Daily Bruin

Aiming for cleaner air and clearer streets, UCLA is teaming up with Rutgers University on a study that will monitor traffic congestion and air pollution.

Researchers from the two universities received a joint grant of $2 million last month from the National Science Foundation. The grant will fund a three-year project, said Mario Gerla, a UCLA computer science professor and one of the project leaders.

Researchers are currently working toward equipping eight university-owned cars with pollution sensors and traffic-gauging technology.

The cars will collect traffic and air quality data while driving for normal university business around the UCLA campus and Westwood each day, said research scientist Giovanni Pau.

These vehicles will begin to operate late next year.

The data will later be used to formulate an algorithm that will give drivers alternative routes to help them avoid traffic and decrease their carbon emissions. This algorithm will be used eventually in either a smartphone application or a new navigation system, Gerla said.

“This will drive the (traffic) system to a much more efficient solution,” Gerla said. “With current solutions, you have the billboards that show you how long it takes to get somewhere, but in this case, the navigators will anticipate the congestion and will be redirected to better routes.”

Rutgers University is doing a similar study on traffic in New York City. Research has shown that about 20 percent of pollution caused by cars can be decreased by changing drivers’ habits, Paulson said.

Actions like sitting in traffic with the engine running are a large source of pollution that can be minimized with more effective technology, Paulson said.

“We are really a car city in Los Angeles,” Pau said. “By changing drivers’ habits, that could save time for people and (lower) pollution for the environment.”

Frequent stopping and accelerating is another driving habit that adds to pollution, said Suzanne Paulson, professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and a researcher with the study.

While a stop sign requires every car to stop, a street light will let some cars go by without stopping, which causes less pollution, Paulson said.

By increasing the ratio of traffic lights to stop signs, there would also be a decrease in the amount of pollution cars emit, she added.

Based on the data from the vehicles, this might be another aspect of traffic the researchers will investigate, Paulson said.

“If you can get the traffic to flow more freely on freeways and on streets, then some pollution can be reduced,” Paulson said.

The researchers are also looking into implementing “congestion fees” on freeways with high traffic that would operate like toll fees, Pau said.

“We are trying to give drivers other options,” Gerla said. “We can’t just tell our drivers to just leave their car at home, but we can help them make better decisions.”