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Leveraging the Cloud to Reduce Traffic Congestion

The North Florida Transportation Planning Organization is using a cloud-based solution to improve its processes and decision-making.

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Transportation is a complex challenge for state and local governments. Cloud-based solutions are well-suited to provide the access, reliability, and security transportation officials need to better retrieve data to improve mobility, enable operational efficiencies, and deliver cost savings.

One metropolitan planning organization (MPO), the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization (TPO), is using a cloud-based solution to improve its processes and decision-making.

MPOs are federally mandated and funded transportation policymaking organizations composed of representatives from local government and regional transportation authorities. They were created by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962, which required the formation of an MPO for any urbanized area with a population greater than 50,000 to ensure regional cooperation in transportation planning.

Federal funding for transportation projects and programs is channeled through this planning process. There are more than 400 MPOs in the United States. All MPOs must develop a Congestion Management Process (CMP) — an arduous research project that necessitates hundreds of staff and consulting hours and requires development and implementation of performance measures — as part of the metropolitan transportation planning process. As the regional MPO for Clay, Duval, Nassau, and St. Johns counties, the North Florida TPO leads the region’s efforts in long-range transportation infrastructure planning to meet the needs of the four counties and sets spending priorities, particularly for the federal funds that come into the region.

North Florida TPO’s region encompasses approximately 3,000 square miles and 1.4 million people. Until recently, the organization primarily relied on manual processes to collect and manage the data needed to develop the CMP.

“The private sector has been aggressive in moving toward real-time data collection, analytics, and performance measures,” says Jeff Sheffield, executive director of North Florida TPO. “Public sector tends to lag behind in those areas, and we were no different. We used very static, manual processes to collect data, relying primarily on spreadsheets and paper reports.”

When the U.S. Department of Transportation issued its Smart City Challenge in 2015, asking mid-sized cities to develop ideas for an integrated, smart transportation system that would use data, applications, and technology to help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently, it served as a wake-up call for North Florida TPO.

“We began investing in roadway technologies like cameras and sensor controls,” Sheffield says. “We saw an opportunity to modernize, become more efficient in what we do, and use some exciting new technologies to address our communities’ transportation challenges.”

Doing so effectively would require modernizing the CMP as well. “We were collecting all this data, but now we needed a way to aggregate that data and put it to better use. From there, we could create an analytics dashboard to provide up-to-date digital performance measures on a regular basis,” says Sheffield. “In other words, we began to envision how to turn the CMP into a living, breathing, real-time document rather than a paper-based report.”

Automating performance indicators

North Florida TPO began working with Urban SDK, an Amazon Web Services (AWS) Technology Partner, which is a company that developed a smart mobility platform that combines data collection practices with performance measurement analytics to better inform decision-makers as they evaluate policy and projects to improve infrastructure.

Urban SDK’s congestion management and performance measurement platform indexes complex roadway, transit, and mobility data from sensors, traffic systems, vehicle, pedestrian, and open data sources. The cloud-based platform, which is built on AWS, enables unlimited integration of real-time data sources, geo-spatial analytics, workflow automation, and predictive intelligence.

“We see the future of public agencies being cloud-based, which is why collaborating with AWS was crucial,” says Drew Messer, CEO and co-founder of Urban SDK.

Urban SDK automated more than 200 performance indicators for North Florida TPO, enabling it to review, share, and update its CMP instantly. Additionally, the organization now has a regional mobility data warehouse that can be used to share data for study, analysis, or long-term planning. It includes an easy-to-use dashboard to help users quickly understand data that can help aid in congestion management.

By automatically integrating data, the platform eliminates the problems that used to arise when various partners would leverage different data sources and produce inconsistent results.

“We now produce real-time, aggregated information we know is accurate, so there is more validation to our decisions,” says Sheffield. “When we work with city council members, elected officials, and commissioners from the various municipalities and districts, the credibility is there. That makes it easier to build consensus to change policy or set priorities. Ultimately it makes things better across the board for our region.”

Residents of the four counties can also access a public-facing portal to view transportation data.

“The citizens of our community now have a trustworthy place to go to get information or data related to the transportation space in our region,” adds Sheffield.

Lower costs, better integration

For North Florida TPO, cloud-based automation and process modernization is facilitating data-driven policy decisions and enabling the organization to plan better integrated transportation networks. With an automated, real-time CMP at its disposal, the organization can ensure investment decisions are made with a clear focus on desired outcomes. It’s also helping reduce expenses. “Completing the CMP manually each year is costly. Modernizing these efforts had a front-end investment in terms of developing a common data model for the data exchange and developing the algorithms and analytics for the performance measures. But once that was done, it’s merely about contributing new data to it, or making tweaks and upgrades, so it’s a reduced investment long term,” says Sheffield. “That means we now have money to spend on other efforts, whether that’s a planning study or a new initiative.”

North Florida TPO’s efforts also align with the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act — the federal government’s push to motivate state, local, and federal agencies to use data to improve policymaking.

“Ultimately, we want the residents of this region to have a transportation system that works well and moves them well,” says Sheffield. “That means decisions need to be based on data rather than on anecdotal, intuitive, or trend-oriented information as they were in the past.”