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