With the current economic downturn and lack of room for new roadways, building additional lanes and roads is no longer a feasible way to accommodate increasing traffic volumes. However, congestion continues to grow, resulting in longer travel times and diminished air quality — all of which affect local economies.
Because building new roadways is not an easy option, departments of transportation (DOTs) and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) are using new technologies, processes, systems and techniques to more efficiently manage the entire transportation network. Many are turning to Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), which enhance communication between operators and traffic agencies, incident and traffic management and congestion mitigation.
ITS uses a “system of systems” approach, in which various function-based elements are joined either permanently or temporarily to meet special sets of circumstances, including extreme weather, accidents, acts of terror or to lessen the impact of large special events. The “system of systems” approach achieves two main goals of multi-regional and multi-jurisdictional integration and system standardization, which were thus far thought to be virtually impossible. With ITS, agencies responsible for different areas of the transportation infrastructure (i.e, roads, transit services, airports, etc.) and from multiple regions can communicate effectively with one another through a standard system to make an efficient transportation infrastructure.
Through ITS, disparate systems that were never designed to be used with other systems can communicate seamlessly with other systems and agencies. That approach ensures that Advanced Transportation Management Systems (ATMS) operators have real-time, predictive data and the tools to make informed decisions to effectively manage transportation systems in any and all conditions. Through increased adoption of ITS, that is now becoming the norm.
The road ahead
As technology continues to speed forward, flaws in older systems that disseminate information to drivers about road conditions from an ITS infrastructure SMS, web and/or Interactive Voice Response (IVR) become obvious. Informing a driver who is sitting in a five-mile long traffic jam about congestion is not really helping the situation.
As a result, the concept of predictive assessment has developed. Predictive assessment takes a snapshot of the current situation, plus short-and long-term historical information to project traffic conditions up to two hours into the future.
While predictive assessment is still not widely used, the demand for making that type of information available is growing. That can be achieved through a number of different options, but they all require a driver to request the information to make an informed, timely decision.
The next generation of ITS will not only inform drivers about traffic delays or an accident ahead, but also offer options of how to avoid delays by using the entire transportation network. Those systems will require a view of the entire network and significantly will increase the data requirements.
In addition, adaptive traffic signal controls have existed for decades but have rarely made the best use of the technology available to effectively control traffic. Software is available that can adapt traffic signals to the flow of traffic, instead of the old standards referred to as “time-of-day, time-of-week,” which ran a predetermined timing plan. Unfortunately, today’s software is not being adopted quickly because it is cumbersome to set up.
However, with the introduction of full geographic information system (GIS)-enabled systems, and the “system of systems” approach, that type of adaptive signaling with full progressive capabilities could be implemented automatically. Signal timing plans could be selected to maximize flow based on current and future traffic requirements, while taking into account factors such as weather conditions and the yellow-light transition time.
Effective traffic management
In addition to improving traffic flow through adaptive traffic signaling, ITS can benefit commercial travelers who are often required to get their loads to a port, dock or other location by a specific time. With a connected infrastructure that uses data from multi-regional and multi-jurisdictional roads and transitways, ITS can identify accurate arrival times. The information could be relayed to the port, dock or recipient so they can make real-time changes to ensure that the shipment is accepted early or plan for a late arrival. That type of sensible application of integrating ITS, data and communication could save businesses money, provide a more flexible, adaptable and efficient environment, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Looking even further ahead, the concept of self-aware and self-healing transportation networks is under investigation by many organizations. The concept would use the entire ITS environment, including signaling systems, speed and volume sensors, cellular and GPS vehicle data, and an incident detection system. By using the entire ITS environment, the system and its operators would have all the information available to fully assess incidents, slow-downs and increased congestion, and identify whether the current situation falls outside normal trends. The system also could identify similar trend patterns based on previous events and use that data to manage the entire network.
The system would then disseminate information to individual travelers, identifying the issue and suggesting a course of action, such as alternate routes or modes of transportation. That could allow traffic managers to prevent accidents before they occur.
Reducing traffic-related fatalities is a priority of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). In a recent speech, Peter Appel, head of USDOT Research and Innovative Technology Administration, discussed how improvements in automotive design have reduced the annual traffic-related fatalities from nearly 45,000 in 2005 to a little more than 32,000 in 2010. He also said that the only way to further reduce the number of fatalities was to reduce the number of collisions.
The amount and type of information for travelers will continue to develop along with technology. For example, smart phones and 4G technologies deliver personalized, location-based services that can serve all travelers, including riders, drivers and shippers. It will soon be possible to access a Traveler Information Portal with information about all aspects of travel from mode, route and timing choices to location-based information.
ITS also has allowed DOTs to move from bridge and pavement management to actively operating the transportation network to provide safe, efficient and economical optimization of the surface transportation network. However, systems must be able to accommodate the huge influx of new data types. The process must be simplified through the introduction of standards that enable many organizations and consortiums to offer ITS improvements.
The value of the new ITS infrastructure will depend on pertinent, location-specific, real-time and predictive information being directly disseminated to individual users. ITS is here to stay and will be improved significantly over the next few years, perhaps as a direct result of the economic downturn, which is forcing everyone to look at more innovative ways of managing more for less.
Reasons for traffic delays
According to the FHWA Office of Transportation Policy Studies’ 2005 study, “An Initial Assessment of Freight Bottlenecks on Highways,” about 40 percent of all delays are caused by recurring congestion, while 60 percent are non-recurring, such as weather, accidents or construction.
Jorgen Pedersen is the director of Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) located in Telvent’s Rockville, Md., office, and Tip Franklin is the director of Business Development in North America, located in the company’s Lakeland, Fla., office. Telvent is a global IT solutions and business information services provider.