Intelligent Transportation, International Style

Europe and Japan have been using intelligent transportation systems for as long as the United States has, but with different results.

by / October 31, 1998
Losing track of time in Trond-heim, Norway, can be costly. That's because cars and trucks must pay a toll to enter the city's business center between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. While the toll has produced some unusual side effects -- cars will suddenly pull to the side of the road minutes before 6 p.m. to avoid paying a fee -- it has benefited Trondheim.

When the electronic toll system was introduced in 1991, peak rush-hour traffic dropped 10 percent, easing traffic jams, pollution and the need for new roads. Revenue from the system has gone toward improving the city's existing road network, upgrading public transit and building new bicycle paths.

Trondheim's electronic toll system, which uses windshield-mounted tags, radar signals and prepaid accounts, is just one application of intelligent transportation systems (ITS), technologies designed to reduce road congestion, improve vehicle safety and enhance environmental protection. But, as Robert Hicks, director of transportation programs at Public Technology Inc., pointed out, the applications of ITS in Europe differ from U.S. usage in two fundamental ways. First, there's more local control over projects, which also pays local dividends -- Trondheim's toll revenue goes directly toward improving the city.

"In the U.S., the emphasis is on integration of ITS," Hicks said. "The U.S. Department of Transportation makes funding available mostly [for] states to tie everything together. There really isn't any money for jurisdictions to test something different, such as a parking system."

Second, the environment plays a more prominent role in ITS projects in Europe. "I think European cities understand the relationship between the environment and transportation better than we do," said Hicks, who spent several months last year visiting numerous ITS projects in Europe. The results of that trip appear in a recently published report, "Intelligent Transportation Systems, The Environment and Global Climate Change: A European Case Study." Hicks, who authored the report, points out that the United States' ITS program "rarely supported regional and local environmental policies." Instead, he said, the program focused on moving more traffic, rather than decreasing the road volume, to the dismay of environmentalists.

ITS By Any Other Name

While ITS technologies have been around in some form since the 1970s, they didn't take root in the United States until 1991, when federal support was authorized by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. Since then, the program has received approximately $200 million annually to research, develop and test ITS deployment.

In Europe and Japan, government-sponsored testing of ITS began years before the United States saw fit to provide funding, according to Robert L. French, a consultant with R & D French Associates and an engineer with more than 25 years' experience in the ITS field. In the early 1980s, Japan introduced the first crude in-vehicle navigation system, years before anything similar appeared in the United States. "At the time, Japan was looking for ways to reduce its traffic congestion, which is more severe over there than in the U.S.," French explained, "whereas the U.S. viewed navigation technology as a private-sector tool for tracking commercial fleet management."

In Europe, ITS was driven not so much by the transportation industry as by the telecommunications sector. In fact, the more common term in Europe is "telematics" for applications of information and telecommunications across many areas, including libraries, environment, education, health care and transportation. Telematic projects tend to cut horizontally across government agencies, whereas the ITS program in the United States is more vertically driven, starting with the Department of Transportation, moving down to state transportation agencies and often stopping at the regional level, such as metropolitan planning organizations.

The strong point in the U.S. approach to ITS is in its systems engineering. "The U.S. was the first to tackle an overall systems architecture for ITS," said French. "Europe and Japan originally approached everything on a piecemeal basis, although this is beginning to change." The United States also came up with a master plan that shows how each ITS function fits in. This form of planning has created standards, allowing different ITS subsystems to exchange information, according to French.

Another effect the United States has had on ITS internationally is the role it has taken in establishing coordinating organizations around the world. ITS America, the nonprofit association representing public and private ITS interests, was instrumental in establishing ERTICO (European Road Transport Telematics Implementation Coordination Organi-zation) in Europe and VERTIS (Vehicle Road and Traffic Intelligence Society) in Japan. ITS America also launched the ITS World Congress. "These groups have helped to accelerate the exchange of information worldwide," said French. "Another outcome of their establishment has been the development of international ITS standards."

Differing Concerns

Today, ITS is beginning to move from the research and development stage toward full deployment. Most of the experimental technologies of a few years ago now exist or are within reach, but, as before, the emphasis varies among the United States, Japan and Europe. For example, Japan has made great strides with systems that deliver realtime traffic information to vehicles. According to French, Tokyo and several other large cities have systems in place that provide vehicles equipped with radio receivers and display monitors the latest on traffic situations. In the United States, realtime distribution of traffic data only exists in limited trials.

Instead, the United States has focused on other forms of traffic management, such as roadside traffic display systems, automated toll systems and highway ramp controls. Growing in popularity are emergency notification systems. These are services developed by the private sector, most notably General Motors and Ford, that put drivers in reach of emergency aid at the touch of a button. Onboard transmitters using global positioning system (GPS) technology alert call centers to the location of the vehicle so help can be dispatched.

But in Europe, where concerns about the environment are much higher than in the United States or Japan, governments have sought to fund intelligent transportation projects aimed at sustainable mobility. These systems do as much to reduce overall traffic volume as they do to increase the flow of traffic. Environmental-management systems are as critical as traffic-management systems, Hicks observed.

The Rising Tide of Cars in Europe and Japan
Percentage of the world's cars registered in the United States
1950 76 percent
1995 28 percent

Auto Registrations (in thousands)
Source: Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, 1997 YEAR JAPAN FRANCE U.K. GERMANY U.S.
1960 457 4,950 5,650 4,856 52,145
1970 8,779 11,860 11,802 14,376 89,244
1980 23,660 18,440 15,438 23,236 121,601
1990 34,924 23,010 22,528 30,695 143,550
1995 44,680 25,100 24,307 40,499 134,981

Rome and Geneva both have systems monitoring air pollution that not only provide information about local air quality but are tied to traffic-monitoring systems. When traffic is bad and air quality deteriorates, cities alert the media, which can disseminate pollution information to the public, encouraging them to seek alternate forms of transport.

One of the factors contributing to the pollution problems in European cities is the lack of available parking. Many older cities lack the large parking lots and garages we expect in U.S. cities. Not surprisingly, drivers spend more time looking for parking, which contributes to congestion and pollution. To reduce the problem, a number of cities have built roadside displays that indicate to drivers approaching the city how many, if any, parking spaces are still available.

Other forms of environmentally sensitive telematics projects under way include:

* Signal systems that give priority to buses and trams over car and truck traffic, boosting the reliability and speed of public transport;

* Realtime public transit information systems that display route numbers and expected arrival times for approaching public transport;

* Access-control systems for city centers, similar to variable-priced tolls, or road-pricing systems, but controlling the number of cars that can enter a designated zone of a city;

* Integrated smart cards with embedded chips and prepaid accounts that can be used by passengers to pay fares on trains, buses, subways and trams. Some projects give passengers rebates when they use the smart card during rush hour;

* Smart systems for bicycle and car rental near public transport facilities; travelers purchase smart cards that open the lockers to obtain car keys or a bike; and

* Road pricing that combines automated toll collection systems with variable-pricing schemes. As in the United States, automated tolls that vary price according to time of day are controversial. In Germany, attempts to launch variable-priced tolls on some autobahns were scuttled due to strong public protests. Besides Trondheim, projects are under way in the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

ITS Needs Telecommunications

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from European ITS projects is the amount of innovation at the local level. PTI's Hicks can cite numerous examples of ITS operations in European cities that would be considered cutting-edge in the United States. He pointed out that many of the parking-availability systems and smart-card projects began as research projects in cities.

"In Europe, there seems to be a widespread recognition that innovation takes place at the local level," he reported. In the United States, however, there's no similar framework for collaborative research at the local level.

There's another factor in Europe's favor when it comes to ITS, according to Hicks. "There's a strong recognition in Europe of a relationship between telecommunications and ITS," he said. "Almost by definition, ITS is a telecommunications application. But in the United States, ITS is promoted as a separate industry. The two industries are not closely aligned and I think that's going to be a major problem here."

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