Grappling with gridlock

Technology hasn't made commuting easier. But it will.

It's another Fourth of July—and another holiday when the technology that is supposed to make it safer and easier to travel the roads is conspicuously absent.

For more than a decade, federal, state and local transportation planners have envisioned designing intelligent transportation systems (ITS) to give drivers the information they need to dodge traffic delays that inevitably come with the holidays and with everyday rush-hour traffic.

Such systems were supposed to use dashboard displays or handheld computers to alert drivers to problems as soon as they occurred and, most importantly, to suggest alternate routes. Yet after billions of dollars of federal funding and years of development by state transportation departments, there's little to show for it, at least on the surface.

"It's probably been a little bit of a disappointment to those of us who were around in the late 1980s," said David Hensing, a 20-year veteran of state transportation planning and the new president of ITS America, a public/private partnership that promotes ITS research and deployment and acts as an advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

Indeed, in many states, the only visible evidence of ITS is variable message signs—electronic displays that can warn about upcoming congestion or merely remind drivers to wear their seat belts.

In late spring, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, a former ITS America board member, described his goal for ITS.

"I have said a number of times that our ITS program needs to be more customer-oriented: It does not help me to read a sign that the highway is congested because, if I'm reading the sign, I'm most likely already sitting in traffic," Mineta said. "What would help is for that sign to tell me where to get off and how to get around the congestion. That must be our management goal."

Going Nowhere Fast

The urgency behind ITS is being driven by ever-increasing traffic congestion. During the last 20 years, the volume of traffic on the nation's roads has increased steadily, with no sign of abating.

The problem is most intense in urban areas. In its latest annual Urban Mobility Study, the Texas Transportation Institute found that cities of all sizes were experiencing more severe and longer-lasting congestion in 1999 than in 1982. For example, the average amount of time people lost sitting in traffic jams each year climbed from 11 hours in 1982 to 36 hours in 1999.

Cities and states can do little about the volume of traffic—except put down more asphalt. In ITS, though, officials see a potential to keep traffic flowing steadily despite the volume (see "In a jam," Page 19).

"We've been in the mode for years to build bridges and highways and make them wider, but we haven't tried to have a smarter system out there," said Dale Peabody, transportation research engineer for Maine's Department of Transportation.

It's an appealing concept, and federal and state transportation agencies continue to pour money and effort into ITS. States have taken the lead in developing ITS applications, but the federal government essentially serves as architect and venture capitalist.

The Transportation Department was authorized to spend $1.28 billion between fiscal 1998 and 2003 on ITS applications. Much of that funding is devoted to designing standards to ensure that ITS applications developed in different states and localities, such as automated toll payments, can work interchangeably.

Another large portion of the funding goes into research on new communications, navigation and safety systems in vehicles and along the highways—or even embedded in the pavement—and to sponsor demonstrations of new technology by cities and states. State ITS projects also are eligible for regular federal-aid highway funding, a $32 billion pot.

Mineta requested $253 million for ITS initiatives in fiscal 2002, a 32 percent increase over the current year.

Sign of the Times

A decade of investment has produced a rich assortment of applications. Many states, especially those with major metropolitan areas, are experimenting with variations of one form of ITS or another. Yet to drivers, the variable message sign remains the most visible sign of progress.

That's because most of the money has gone into developing ITS infrastructure, such as electronic road signs, ramp meters and automated traffic signals, said ITS America's Hensing.

These devices make it possible to control the flow of traffic in fairly simple yet effective ways. Electronic signs, for example, can be used to set up variable lane controls, so a four-lane highway might have three lanes heading into town and one lane out in the morning, and then three lanes outbound and one lane inbound in the evening.

But these applications are generally passive and respond to known traffic patterns. Ramp metering, for example, which moderates traffic entering a highway to prevent bottlenecks, is generally set up to run for a set rush hour, rather than turning on and off as traffic demands.

What's often missing is the ability to deliver information to drivers and, for that matter, information worth delivering.

Mineta's complaint about the variable message sign pretty well indicates where ITS is today, said Christine Johnson, director of the ITS Joint Program Office and program manager for operations at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Johnson describes it as a cultural problem. At the federal, state and local levels, transportation departments are perceived as building and construction organizations, Johnson said. But she said that method of building a road and then letting the users take over doesn't work for ITS.

"You can't just leave an overhead message sign and expect it to be used. You have to operate that system and give travelers what they want."

As much as transportation officials would like to provide so-called traveler information services, they have hit several roadblocks.

For starters, carmakers simply have not seen the demand from consumers to install the kind of wireless information systems—known as telematics — needed to access data on the road. However, just last month, Volkswagen officials announced the limited production of a Golf model called eGeneration that will feature an Internet connection and assorted electronics. The first such mass-produced vehicle, eGen.eration initially will only be available in Germany.

With little support from the auto industry, a cottage industry of companies was offering to take government traffic data and deliver it to drivers, said Pete Briglia, ITS program manager for Washington's DOT. "At one time, we were deluged with requests for traveler information data, [but] now very few companies are still in business," he said.

And there's increasing concern that, much like wireless phones, such systems could be dangerously distracting to drivers. However, a May 2001 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety on driver distractions found there was not enough data in highway records to determine how often wireless phones and other distractions contributed to accidents.

Although the data was inconclusive, driver distraction appears to be a problem in the making, the researchers decided. "As roads grow more congested and the demands on drivers increase, it seems likely that new in-vehicle technologies will add even more potential distracters," according to the report.

Many lawmakers are not waiting for more studies. Approximately 100 bills in 38 states have been proposed to limit the use of wireless phones, computers and navigational tools in cars, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. On June 25, New York's assembly passed a ban on using handheld cell phones while driving, and the governor has promised to sign it into law.

But the means of information delivery is moot given the current dearth of good data.

Most traffic information—fed to television and radio stations and, more often now, posted on state DOT Web sites—highlights accidents, work zones or other traffic problems. These sites often provide live video captured by roadside closed-circuit cameras, but do not include the detailed information about traffic volume and speed that might help people choose the best route.

Such is the case with the variable message signs.

Unfortunately, most of the overhead message boards made it to the highways before the sensing technologies and roadway measurement tools were available to feed them with meaningful content, said FHWA's Johnson. ITS requires traffic managers to learn how to operate the hardware as a service to the customer, she said.

"That to me is one of [the] challenges that's up ahead," Johnson said.

Roadwork Ahead

During the last year, though, there have been several signs that the obstacles might not be insurmountable.

Just last month, northern Kentucky and Cincinnati began officially offering a 511 traveler information service, which allows people to call an automated service center for road conditions. The Federal Communications Commission approved 511 as a standard number for traveler information in July 2000, and some experts believe the number just might be the new face of ITS (see "Dial up for road conditions," Page 22).

It's the combination of the service center and interactive voice response (IVR) technology that makes 511 so attractive to the ITS community.

Clearly, a dial-up service eliminates the need for special equipment, a boon for cost-conscious carmakers and consumers, but by itself, it still raises concerns about driver distractions. IVR, though, makes it possible to use 511 without looking away from the road and even to use hands-free microphones. Some people might still see it as a distraction, just as any cellular call is, but "if [information] is provided with audio, then it will be less distracting," Briglia said.

General Motors took a similar approach with its Onstar service. Onstar allows drivers to place a call to a service center to request directions, roadside help or emergency service by simply clicking on one of three buttons on the instrument panel, then speaking into a hands-free mike. A satellite transponder in the vehicle gives Onstar staff the exact location of the car.

Although Onstar—which has more than 1 million customers—does not offer traffic information, it does offer a model for providing such data.

"When [the Onstar customer base] gets up to 10 million or 50 million and people can get turn-by-turn directions but [not] real-time traffic information, they are going to start demanding better information," said Jim Robinson, director of the ITS division at the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

Virginia is at the forefront of states trying to improve the quality of traffic data. The Virginia Transportation Research Council, which works with Virginia universities to provide VDOT research and technical assistance, is in the middle of an extensive effort to develop new techniques for analyzing traffic data and turning it into useful information.

In the Hampton Roads area, near Virginia's coast, researchers have installed approximately 200 sensors along the roads to measure the volume and speed of traffic around the clock and throughout the year. Other regions—including, most recently, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and their surrounding areas — have undertaken similar projects, but mostly with the idea of providing people with more detailed real-time traffic information (see "Directing traffic," below).

Researchers at Virginia's Smart Travel Laboratory are more interested in analyzing data the sensors collect across long periods of time. By recognizing traffic patterns that occur during summer mornings as well as winter mornings, the researchers hope to develop a way of forecasting traffic. Traffic forecasting could improve the value of the variable message sign and other applications, said Cathy McGhee, senior research scientist with the Virginia Transportation Research Council. For example, by analyzing traffic data collected on eastbound Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia, variable message signs in the western suburbs of Washington, D.C., might inform drivers how long a trip into the nation's capital would take. Traffic forecasting even may improve the value of VDOT's Web site. The Web site currently links to a page listing the conditions of highways in the D.C. area, but that's not of much use to someone living 30 or 40 miles away because so much can change. In the future, that might not be a problem.

"We want to provide information so people can make good decisions about their travel, so maybe they can choose another route or travel at a different time," McGhee said.

That kind of predictive capability is the key to ITS, said VDOT's Robinson. Virginia, like other states, is working on other applications, including automated tollbooths, advanced traffic signaling and ramp metering. But the future, with its possibility of traffic forecasting and other consumer services, is more exciting, Robinson said.

"We are getting there, we are making progress," he said, "but it's a lot slower than a lot of people had hoped it would be."

Trimble was formerly a senior reporter for FCW.

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