Jacksonville, Fla., Envisions Its Transportation Future

Self-driving public shuttles will roam up and down the corridor. Street lights will brighten for passersby and then dim to save energy. Stoplights will dynamically adjust to traffic conditions.

by Carole Hawkins, The News-Journal / December 17, 2019

(TNS) — There is an incredible near-future vision for transportation on Bay Street in Jacksonville, Fla.

Self-driving public shuttles will roam up and down the corridor. Street lights will brighten for passersby and then dim to save energy. Stoplights will dynamically adjust to traffic conditions. If a sensor on a light pole detects shots fired, a camera tethered to police dispatch will switch on to capture the event.

It all seemed Jetsons until last year, when the Bay Street Innovation Corridor got its first capital infusion — half of a $25 million federal grant paired with state and local matches. That money sent the Jacksonville Transportation Authority shopping for a fleet of autonomous vehicles for Bay Street.

The Innovation Corridor is not just a collection of tech gadgets, though. It's a more fundamental shift to a city that runs smarter and leaner by plugging its assets into the Internet of Things. In that broader tale, The Innovation Corridor is neither the first act nor that final scene.

The Internet of Things has been quietly developing in Jacksonville for over a decade. Its future is much larger than a 3-mile stretch of Downtown roadway.

North Florida gets smart

The Internet's worldwide network of computers and devices has for decades provided information to people. Now the Internet is being used for things to provide information to other things. Any object armed with a sensor and a microchip can collect data about its environment and broadcast it to the Internet.

The more objects get connected to one another this way, the more they can react to things around them without human intervention. When the Internet of Things is used to perform municipal services, that city is called a Smart City. Parking spaces can tell you when they are empty. Trashcans can tell you when they are full.

The Internet of Things seems incredible, but it's also believable. That's because it's already happening in Jacksonville.

For years the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization has been using swaths of remote sensors to collect bits of traffic data. It all started 15 years ago, long before the Internet of Things was...well, a thing.

"We needed transit to become more efficient," said Jeff Sheffield, executive director of the TPO. "We are not going to be able to build enough roads to fulfill all of our transportation needs."

So, transportation engineers deployed hundreds of infrared sensors and Bluetooth receivers along highways. The pings of data the TPO now collects from moving vehicles feed a traffic app that tells commuters which route to work is quickest. The data also inform those smart highway signs that warn travelers of a disabled vehicle ahead.

Mission control for all of this traffic data is a little known facility on Jefferson Street — a 6,500-square-foot Regional Transportation Management Center. Sheffield stands in the middle of it, arms outstretched as he presents the achievement.

The floor is divided into workplace "pods," each with its own array of computer terminals. The walls of the room are lined at both ends with monitors.

Some display live feeds from Interstate Highway traffic cameras. Others light up highway routes in green, yellow and red, according to congestion. One tracks the GPS position of Road Rangers — a fleet of repair trucks that respond when a car breaks down on the highway. Another monitor lists wind speeds on bridges.

"If conditions go out of the norm, an alarm is sent to the relevant agency," Sheffield said. "They don't have to watch every minute."

All of this input helps the TPO with its operations, certainly. From this building, transportation managers can reprogram stoplights remotely, aligning them with measured shifts in traffic demand.

The real power of the Internet of Things happens when data is shared, though, Sheffield said. He makes a case that that's already begun, though in an analog kind of a way. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, Florida Highway Patrol, Fish and Wildlife and state Department of Transportation all maintain teams at the transportation center.

"It helps them to react a little bit sooner," Sheffield said. "We found with first responders, all of us are asking a lot of the same questions."

When an accident occurs, police can dispatch officers to the scene. During a hurricane, winds can be measured, evacuations can be managed and incidents monitored.

The data from the Regional Transportation Management Center connect to a larger statewide network, too. When Hurricane Dorian threatened South Florida last summer, the Florida Department of Transportation evacuated its transportation management center in Miami and relocated the staff to Jacksonville. From that safe distance they could "listen" to pings of data from South Florida sensors.

Petri dish for a Smart Region

Today's accomplishments are just one small step toward the Internet of Things. The giant leap is still to come.

The North Florida TPO has teamed with the cities of Jacksonville and St. Augustine, the JTA and more than 100 public and private partners to form a Smart Region Coalition. Its aim is to transform Northeast Florida into a place [Continued on page 97] where the Internet of Things helps people and traffic move safely and seamlessly.

A 33-project Smart Region Master Plan authored by the TPO shows just how much little bits of data stand to change life in Northeast Florida.

There's an app to find parking spaces in St. Augustine and another app to locate vehicles belonging to government fleets in Clay County.

Smart traffic signals give priority to trucks on Hecksher Drive and to city buses along main arteries.

Alerts are sent to ambulances, warning them when rail crossing gates block the usual routes to Baptist Medical Center, and alternate routes are broadcast.

Within the context of this larger plan, the Bay Street Innovation Corridor is not a keystone project. It's the Petri dish. It's a place where the Internet of Things technology can be tested, and then deployed to scale in other places.

Autonomous vehicles for Bay Street? The same technology is proposed as a way to shuttle passengers around the St. Johns Town Center, The University of North Florida and Naval Air Station Jacksonville.

Flood sensors to measure waters rising on streets? San Marco, the banks of McCoys Creek and St. Augustine are flood-prone areas where the same sensors could be used.

Pedestrian sensors could tell traffic lights and drivers on State and Union streets when people are crossing. Duval County's A1A corridor is another traffic-laden place where pedestrian sensors could be used.

Internet of Things nerve center

When it comes to creating the Internet of Things across a four-county region, there are a lot of disparate parts. Those parts all connect at the Regional Transportation Management Center. Just like the data blips sent by today's traffic sensors, the Smart Region Master Plan sensors route all the new bits of data back to the center. That infrastructure creates another possibility.

The center is in a good position to become a nerve center for the region's Internet of Things data. Having data stored in one centralized location means it could be analyzed as a whole. It could also be shared with the public. That would allow third-party app developers to create their own traffic solutions for a transit hungry public.

The same data that's used to promote safe, convenient transportation could also potentially be connected to data from other organizations — for example, in the healthcare or human services space — to solve community problems as yet unimagined.

To that end, the Innovation Corridor has one other role. It's a Petri dish, yes. But it's also a small and focused view of what a brave new data-connected world might look like.

Imagine it.

Editor's note: The headline of this story was adjusted for accuracy.

©2019 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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