January 4, 2011 By Russell Nichols
In Washington state, on the busiest stretch of Interstate 5, motorists can see trouble coming a mile away — all they need to do is read the signs.
Overhead, new high-tech gantries display real-time traffic information about collisions or construction work ahead. Digital speed limits automatically adjust to roadway conditions. Yellow arrows tell drivers to merge. Green arrows show open lanes. And a red x marks a closed lane.
In August, the state’s Department of Transportation (WSDOT) switched on the signs as part of a smart highway project to reduce collisions and help make traffic flow smoother. Overseas, countries like England and Germany have used active traffic management (ATM) tools for years. But Washington and Minnesota were the first to deploy modern ATM technology in the U.S.
“This is a technology that can really reduce infrastructure costs, enhance mobility and improve safety,” said Nick Thompson, director of policy analysis research and innovation for Minnesota’s Department of Transportation. “It’s like the next generation of a freeway.”
From bottlenecks to rubbernecks, there’s no getting around the fact that traffic jams have crawled into the status quo of America’s transportation system. The word “commute” might as well be a synonym for congestion. In 2003, the nation’s 85 largest metropolitan areas experienced 3.7 billion hours of travel delay, resulting in 2.3 billion gallons in wasted fuel and a $63 billion congestion cost, according to a 2005 report from the Texas Transportation Institute.
But just as innovative technologies — smartphones, smart grids, etc. — have helped agencies navigate the current economic gridlock, states are launching the latest highway tools to transform the transportation system. In Minnesota, for instance, rather than build another highway lane, transportation officials added a price lane, which allows motorists to pay to drive in the shoulder lane during rush hour.
“The old way of thinking is that we could build our way out of congestion, and that has never proved to be the case,” Thompson said. “We took a $400 million concept and built it for $15 million in five months.”
On roadways, smart technologies provide real-time data, improve travel efficiency, streamline pricing and payments, and customize travel to meet motorists’ needs, according to Smart Mobility for a 21st Century America, a report released in October from four transportation organizations.
“The U.S. transportation system is the engine of our economic competitiveness, providing access to schools and jobs, delivering just-in-time products, maintaining security, encouraging healthy active lifestyles, allowing first responders to tackle emergencies, promoting tourism, facilitating business, and ensuring smoothly operating thoroughfares so people can get where they need to go,” the report said. “Improving transportation efficiency through operational innovation is critical as our population grows and ages, budgets tighten and consumer preferences shift.”
Making highways “smarter” isn’t a new concept. For years, the Federal Highway Administration has promoted numerous traffic management technologies and strategies, such as traveler information, traffic incident management and traffic signal timing.
Many state departments have made improvements that involve intelligent transportation systems and forward-looking traffic management tools. This year, New Jersey motorists on two of America’s busiest roadways will have access to a Traffic Prediction Tool that calculates the chances of gridlock with up to 93 percent accuracy, much the same way meteorologists forecast the weather.
The key difference with ATM systems is how they integrate different strategies and technologies using real-time data and speed harmonization, said Nancy Singer, a Federal Highway Administration spokeswoman.
“By stabilizing traffic speeds, speed harmonization systems work to reduce traffic flow breakdowns and the onset of stop-and-go driving behavior,” Singer said. “This results in more uniform traffic flow and safer driving conditions.”
But with constricted budgets, transportation departments can’t afford to ignore the costs for system operations, support and maintenance. In Washington, the I-5 signs cost about $23 million, funded as part of the WSDOT’s Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Project. Modifications made to the 16-mile stretch of highway in Minnesota totaled about $70 million, Thompson said. Both states plan to proceed with expansion projects next year, and Colorado is considering a similar system.
“States must carefully evaluate if such systems can meet the needs of a particular roadway in order to obtain maximum effectiveness and benefits,” Singer said.
But in the United Kingdom, critics initially called the “extra lane” scheme a cheap alternative to motorway widening that will only encourage more drivers and increase emissions.
“We are unclear what the long-term strategy is for ATM,” the Campaign for Better Transport wrote in a 2008 ATM feasibility study. “If it is simply to create a little extra capacity that will simply fill up again in a few years, we would not support ATM. This would again be another sticking plaster solution that does not deal with long-term challenges.”
A few years ago, U.S. transportation managers visited Europe to see how its countries were using technology in their infrastructure investments. There, Washington and Minnesota transportation officials saw the ATM system in action and brought the idea back to the U.S.
“The concept of active traffic management was something that hadn’t been done in the United States,” said Morgan Balogh, a traffic engineer for the WSDOT. “This technology has shown real benefits of a 30 percent reduction in injury collisions.”
When it comes to advanced transportation networks that reduce emissions and travel times, America still has ground to make up — the U.S. lags behind innovation leaders, such as Japan, Sweden and South Korea, according to Smart Mobility.
As Congress prepares to reauthorize the nation’s transportation program, the report highlights that “an array of innovations that were either overlooked or did not exist at the time of previous authorizations can be incentivized.”
Although the recent texting-while-driving firestorm may have strained the relationship between transportation and technology, the report claims that the U.S. can catch up in the global race if leaders make a national commitment and systematically deploy technology to solve the most critical transportation problems.
“Just as the Internet, smartphones and social media changed the way we acquire news, listen to music, or connect with friends and family, these same innovations have implications for how we move around,” the report said. “While high-tech gadgets can be a problem when they distract motorists from driving, they open up a whole new world for people using other modes.”