Making smarter traffic decisions

A newly forged research partnership aims to create “smarter transportation systems” to help alleviate traffic congestion and reduce accidents, while simultaneously generating cost savings and driving sustainable economic development

A newly forged research partnership aims to create “smarter transportation systems” to help alleviate traffic congestion and reduce accidents, while simultaneously generating cost savings and driving sustainable economic development.

IBM and the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) are joining forces to bring together research scientists, faculty and students to work with state and municipal agencies on exploring technologies and innovations to help solve transportation issues in Texas initially, then eventually worldwide.

In the near term, the collaboration will provide the opportunity for proofs-of-concept and extensive pilot deployments at the state and regional level, said Dennis Christiansen, TTI’s agency director.

“Our goal in this collaboration with IBM is to remove barriers between industrial research, universities and transportation agencies and to foster collaborative, applied research between those groups,” he stressed. “In doing so, we will open the door to innovations that have the potential to improve the way our transportation systems work.”

Laura Wynter, transportation research scientist with IBM Research, noted that when it comes to addressing traffic problems today, transportation agencies are largely reactive – focusing largely on isolated incidents and single areas of congestion.

Through technologies such as road sensors and predictive analytics, transportation systems can be made smarter, allowing agencies to be more proactive in dealing with traffic issues, she said. For example, technologies exist today that make it possible to predict traffic conditions anywhere from an hour to 15 minutes in advance, providing drivers with valuable information on what is going to happen, rather than what has already happened – even before they get in their vehicles.

These efforts join with goals established by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) in its new five-year strategic plan called Transportation for a New Generation released just last month.

“Advances in technology have the potential to positively impact transportation safety efforts over the next decade,” the agency said in its report, noting that advanced interoperable secure wireless data, voice and video systems are essential for deploying advanced transportation safety, security, emergency response and efficiency systems across all modes of transportation.

“Standards development and certification must be a part of this effort; tie-ins to radio navigation and geo-location requirements, advanced computing, and spectrum management are required,” DOT said. “A systemic approach to technology development and deployment could pay large dividends to transportation.”

“While most people don’t realize it, or even think about it on their daily commutes, intelligent technology plays a role in our lives each and every day,” added Scott Belcher, president of ITS America, at the group’s 20th annual meeting this week in Houston, TX.

He explained that new surface transportation legislation is likely to include a program of performance measures that, unlike in the past, may for the first time be linked to funding. “Timely reporting on many of these measures calls for the type of data that can only be provided by technology,” he said. “[But] a disconnect exists between policy makers who develop these performance measures and folks who understand the data that can be generated by technology.”

Belcher pointed to the “95 Express Project” in Miami as an example of how technology can be deployed to improve highway performance. That project used a combination of technology, transit, tolling and transportation demand management to significantly improve the traffic flow on I-95 in the Miami metropolitan region – without having to widen or construct new traffic lanes.

As a result, average travel speeds in the corridor's local lanes increased from below 20 mph to 41 mph in the first six months of operation. In addition, travel lane blockage times have decreased by 45% and incident response times improved by 15%.

“This is a good example of how intelligent transportation systems can effectively solve major transportation problems without the high financial and environmental costs of trying to build additional infrastructure in crowded urban communities,” Belcher added, noting that this project received ITS America’s award for “2010 Best Innovative Product or Service” during the group’s annual meeting.

The collaboration between IBM and TTI seeks to create similar success stories across the U.S. if not the globe. The plan is to jointly pursue funding of selected transportation initiatives that are part of the federal intelligent transportation research agenda, than create long-term, sustainable operational models open to state transportation agencies and universities in the U.S. and around the world.

The immediate focus is on fostering new transportation management strategies to help public agencies operate freeways, streets and transit systems more efficiently.

“The trend in transportation management is to use data to predict future traffic conditions and allow agencies to implement strategies and provide traveler information in anticipation of those future conditions,” noted Christopher Poe, TTI’s assistant agency director.

IBM has already helped several cities around the world make their transportation systems smarter, working with the city of Stockholm in Sweden to gather real-time information from GPS devices on nearly 1,500 taxi cabs to generate real-time information on traffic flow, travel times and the best commuting options. That service will soon expand to gather data from delivery trucks, traffic sensors, transit systems, pollutions monitors and weather information sources.

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