Building better highways via the Internet
Transportation planners around the country are finding it easier to navigate in cyberspace these days. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) and the U.S. Department of Transportation have joined forces with state and local planners to create an inexpensive, easy-to-use, multi-jurisdictional electronic network and repository — a library of full-text documents generated by state departments of transportation, local planning agencies, universities and private-sector firms.
The program, called SMART (State and Metropolitan Analyses for Regional Transportation), organizes pertinent highway data, responding to the irony that even as information technologies are becoming more ubiquitous, sharing information can be frustrating.
Transportation planners have long been deterred from conducting extensive multijurisdictional research because of the expense and time involved for any single state or local agency to collect and arrange all of the information generated by the entire community.
The SMART program offers a one-stop shop for planners to share information relevant to their work. Any city or country can access information free of charge, as well as input information it feels is important to the industry.
The program started by identifying 22 categories of information — such as facilities design, bicycle and pedestrian planning, maintenance management, land use, law and regulations, parking, right-of-way management and travel demand forecasting — that transportation professionals wanted to share.
BTS staff made up 22 cardboard boxes with labels, and as materials came in, they dropped the suggestions into the appropriate boxes. As the boxes filled up, BTS digitized the reports and moved them to the Internet. Because some materials, such as videotapes, audio recordings of interviews with practitioners and multimedia training materials, could not be distributed over the Internet, BTS also made a CD-ROM version of the library using off-the-shelf authoring software.
The Internet library (www.bts.gov) currently offers about 1,000 links to full-text reports, averaging 66 pages each. More than 120 agencies have contributed materials to the library, including the New York City Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and nearly 42,000 documents have been downloaded by more than 15,000 users.
The library is growing rapidly as more transportation agencies develop Internet sites or begin to send BTS copies they cannot get on-line themselves.
By 1997, the library is expected to contain at least 5,000 reports. Planners isolated by travel restrictions are using the program to learn about practices and innovations in other parts of the county, exchanging e-mail advice with peers and capturing copies of documents that would otherwise be unavailable to them.
The CD-ROM version of the library is being used by universities and planning organizations to train students and new employees. It is also being used to explain key concepts to experienced staff who are not familiar with new planning subdisciplines.
Both the Federal Transit Administration and the Travel Model Improvement Program (a joint Department of Transportation, Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency initiative) have started projects modeled after the program. “The [SMART] Web site has become a tremendous resource for the agency. It allows the research of activities in other transportation agencies and has saved time and money,” says Ed Christopher, director of information services at the Chicago Area Transportation Study, who, like other local planners, is a big fan of the system.