Intelligent Transportation Systems Target Highway Congestion

Agencies use GPS, mapping software and cameras to keep traffic moving.

by / September 9, 2008

Automobiles and the highways we drive them on are wonders of technology -- old technology. Like the suburbs that sprang up after the interstate was born, little thought was given to how these marvels of road building would hold up in the future. Today's traffic is a worsening problem with no clear solution.

Like climate change, the best strategy to soothe traffic woes is likely a combination of solutions. Except for a few pockets of hope, U.S. public transportation ranges from laughable to nonexistent. As much sense as a high-speed rail service would make in populous, spread-out places like California and Texas, the cost and political will it would require doesn't make it an option. What remains is constructing more roads and an amalgam of technologies known as intelligent transportation systems (ITS).

Unfortunately ITS doesn't herald a new age of '60s-era transportation futurism. There will be no flying cars or downtown monorails. What ITS can do, however, is make traffic more bearable. While anyone with a modicum of foresight knows that gasoline-powered cars plodding along occasionally widening, often-crumbling freeways isn't a sustainable solution, ITS may help bide time to truly solve the transportation problem.

Rubber, Meet Road
Many drivers already use ITS in some fashion whether they know it or not. John Q. Public may be oblivious to ITS because the term covers so many different technology pieces.

California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) Chief Deputy Director Randy Iwasaki did his best to sum up what exactly ITS encompasses.

"Examples of ITS are 511, Web sites where motorists view real-time traffic speeds, FasTrak, smart parking, bus rapid transit, Wi-Fi access at rest areas, ramp meters, closed circuit television, changeable message signs and the vehicle infrastructure integration program," he said.

On their own merits, 511, changeable message signs and ramp meters, aren't too exciting. But taken together, an ad hoc web develops that reaches into almost every part of the transportation experience. And California, like many other states, is working on cutting-edge stuff, such as the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration (VII) program.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials and a number of automobile manufacturers are driving the national VII program. The goal is to create a nationwide network of communication-enabled infrastructure. In other words, VII is an attempt to connect vehicles on the road to the things surrounding them -- intersections, onramps and even other vehicles. If the infrastructure communicates to the vehicles and vice versa, drivers should be able to travel more efficiently and safely.

The auto manufacturers onboard with VII are working on data-transmitting technologies that would interface with similar devices embedded in the infrastructure. One project to accomplish this feat is a test in Berkeley, Calif., that uses GPS-enabled mobile phones to transmit a vehicle's position and speed data to generate real-time traffic information without costly technology installation. The project is operated jointly by Caltrans; the California Center for Innovative Transportation; the University of California (UC), Berkeley; Nissan; NAVTEQ; and Nokia. In February, the consortium conducted an experiment to test the validity of using GPS phones as traffic sensors.

The experiment, called the Mobile Century, involved 100 UC Berkeley student volunteers. Each student was given a Nokia phone and proceeded to drive up and down a prescribed section of Interstate 880. The students drove for 10 hours while the phones relayed speed and location data to a command center. The experiment's goal was to see whether the phone data could accurately predict traffic and help drivers avoid and prevent congestion. Transportation officials and UC engineers were thoroughly pleased with the experiment. The results suggested the system has potential.

"Even though the phones are capable of sending their position and speed every three seconds, an efficient traffic-monitoring system should not need

to transfer such a large amount of data, which would require enormous bandwidth," Alex Bayen, UC Berkeley assistant professor of systems engineering, told Berkeley News. "Our challenge is to find the optimum subset of this data for effective traffic monitoring. The quantity and quality of data provided by GPS-equipped cell phones present an unprecedented enhancement to mobility tracking technology and traffic flow reconstruction mechanisms."

Data from the experiment suggests such a system could warn drivers of impending roadway problems en route and also show a scheduled meeting on a driver's phone and cross-reference that against the data being collected. If a meeting were to commence at 9 a.m. and traffic data showed problems on the road, a driver's phone could alert her, and provide an alternate route before she even gets in her car.

Every year, billions of hours and billions of gallons of gasoline are wasted due to traffic congestion. This kind of innovative ITS solution could greatly reduce those numbers while avoiding the significant expense, according to Iwasaki.

"California has made significant strides in rebuilding its transportation infrastructure. ITS is a smart investment of taxpayers' dollars. It offers the ability to make our existing transportation infrastructure more efficient," he said.

Map Quest
It will be some time before the Mobile Century experiment becomes reality. The project partners still have many tests to conduct. Plans are being drawn up for an experiment involving thousands of cars and volunteers spread across a much larger area. In the meantime, there are ITS solutions ready to be deployed that could have an impact on traffic congestion.

In Ohio, the state department of transportation uses Microsoft Virtual Earth to help drivers and transportation officials better manage traffic. Visitors to find a wealth of traffic information for traveling through the state. Launched last October, is built on the Virtual Earth platform, giving users a detailed and easily navigable Ohio map. On the Web site, a driver can examine a route and its potential traffic problems. In addition, the state's 250 traffic cameras are linked directly to the map, giving users a real-time view of what's transpiring.

"Let's say I want to check my commute home," said Spencer Wood, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Transportation's Division of Information Technology. "I can go zoom into the Columbus area, it can show me all roadway activity for Columbus, and it's going to pull up all the roadway construction. It's going to show me any roadway closures or restrictions due to debris, disabled vehicles, flooding, roadwork, ice, and even what we call 'other' -- basically other events that we couldn't account for [in] a specific category, whether it be a gas leak, a fire that's closed down a road or something like that. So [users] get all that information, but also if you know this is a route you go home on every day, you can also select 'My Cameras,' and look at all the cameras in Columbus."

Traffic and weather sensors across the state are linked to the site and layered onto Virtual Earth as an administrator chooses. Weather data is updated every five minutes, and in a place like Ohio, the information can be invaluable during brutal winters and unpredictable summers.

For example, this summer the Midwest suffered through significant flooding from the swollen Mississippi River. Along with physical damage the flooding caused, it also wreaked havoc on residents' ability to travel.

"We've been seeing millions of [Web site] hits, especially during bad weather times," Wood said. "We can also look at wind speed direction, and it's also a dashboard for us from a management point of view. We can actually look at the entire state and say

which roads are clear, which roads have snow and ice, and which roads we would consider dangerous."

Since was built on the Virtual Earth platform, Ohio Department of Transportation engineers avoided the expense of building the application themselves. Wood estimated that so far the application has cost $60,000 -- far less than it would've cost to build the software internally.

What's more, takes a step toward crossing the digital divide. Many U.S. citizens can't afford devices such as in-car GPS. Because it's free, comprehensive and easy to use, makes real-time, statewide traffic data available to people who may otherwise be unable to access it. And it's much easier for developers to work with than standard GIS systems, according to Kevin Adler, Microsoft geospatial solutions specialist.

"One way we can work with transportation is we can allow the people who are responsible for collecting and then disseminating the data to easily publish that data onto Virtual Earth -- meaning you do not need to use the traditional ESRI tools that five years ago were the only game in town for pushing out data on a map," Adler explained. "Virtual Earth is designed for the typical developer to throw data on it and publish it. That eliminates the resources requirements of using that ESRI analyst. Your standard Web developer can do this. You're giving them an easy tool to use to create a platform for dissemination of data."

ITS Goes Public
Bringing ITS to public transit is another piece in the transportation puzzle. In Portage County, Ohio, the regional transit service helps many citizens get where they need to go. Many of the riders, like the elderly and disabled, couldn't otherwise reach their destinations.

The Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority (PARTA) has served less-fortunate citizens for years, providing low-cost transportation within the county and surrounding areas. Like most other transportation authorities, PARTA relies on buses to do the brunt of its people-moving work. Some of PARTA's buses do door-to-door routes to pick up those who can't reach bus stops on their own. In the past, those routes' bus drivers had to fill out paper manifests with all sorts of data -- travel time and mileage, addresses, passenger numbers and pickup times. The data was then relayed via radio to a central office, where it was taken down and entered again for billing purposes. The paperwork and radio traffic was becoming increasingly unmanageable.

PARTA Business Development Manager Bryan Smith discovered a surprising solution: rugged laptops.

"The [Panasonic] Toughbook is really designed for the mobile environment," Smith said. "I use the computer every day at my desk and thought, 'How hard would it be to take the smaller version of this -- any kind of laptop -- and move it into a vehicle?'"

But the answer is it's tough to do, he said, because it's often hot humid, cold and dusty inside a diesel bus and standard computer components don't stand up to those conditions.

Smith said the Toughbook is perfect for his drivers because it features a touchscreen instead of a keyboard and can transmit all the mundane manifest data wirelessly. It also serves as a GPS device, which lets PARTA continually enhance routes, improve travel times and increase fuel efficiency. In addition, the Toughbooks work like an emergency beacon, which given the temperamental Midwest weather, can suddenly be very important.

"We can pinpoint the location and find out what's wrong," Smith said. "One example that happened soon after we installed these was that one of our routes goes into downtown. There was snow on the roads, there was a snowplow coming down the freeway and it flung a chunk of ice through the windshield of a bus. The driver got hit in the face with glass, really couldn't see all that well, but he was able to hit his emergency button and dispatch was able to say, 'He's right there on the highway.'"

Smith and PARTA are working on other ITS solutions that go beyond buses. A traffic management coordination center is in the works that will feature interactive voice response, online trip planning and Web-based trip requests.

PARTA projects, like and Mobile Century, aren't the solution to the current and future traffic issues people face every day. But innovations like them may one day add up to a sum greater than its parts. And maybe, just maybe, ITS will eventually make it easier to share the road.


Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.