Can high-tech communications systems untangle traffic congestion?

Internet, smartphones, GPS all pay roll in future national traffic management system

As anyone who commutes to work knows, traffic congestion is a huge waste of time and money.  Traffic congestion resulted in 4.2 billion hours of time spent waiting in traffic and 2.8 billion gallons of extra fuel used, at a total cost of $87.2 billion in 2007 alone, according to one study. 

With the advent of smartphones that have Web access and development of a variety of advance sensor networks in and around roadways as well as pending Federal legislation that will promote the use of high-tech traffic management systems, some experts say we could be on the brink of a better way of traveling by car.  But challenges abound, not the least of which is money to develop the new technologies.   

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A report issued this week by the Government Accountability Office states that research shows real-time high-tech traffic information systems can alleviate traffic congestion by providing travelers with information on traffic and other travel conditions, as well as on alternative routes.  Travelers are increasingly using newer technologies-such as cell phones that can access Web sites and receive text messages and GPS devices-to obtain traffic information during travel and can be used to disseminate traffic information to the public to help travelers-including commuters and long-distance travelers-decide whether to use alternative, less congested routes, the GAO stated. 

So what's going right? 

  • 511 phone services that use a phone system to disseminate traffic information are expanding. For example, Pennsylvania launched its service in September 2009, and a five-county system in Southern California is expecting to launch its service by the end of 2009. Four additional states-Delaware, Maryland, Mississippi, and South Carolina-are planning to have operational 511 services in 2010, the GAO stated. 
  • Many state and local agencies in these areas disseminated real-time traffic information to the public primarily through the Internet, e-mail, television and radio, dynamic message signs, and Highway Advisory Radio. 
  • Private sector companies are expanding coverage, in part by using newer technologies to increase the collection of traffic data. 
  • Westwood One disseminates real-time traffic information to the public nationwide through its affiliations with 2,400 radio stations, more than 170 television stations, and more than 250 Web sites.  Clear Channel's Total Traffic Network disseminates real-time traffic data in 95 cities via in-car or portable navigation devices, broadcast media, and wireless and Internet-based services.  
  • NAVTEQ Traffic is available in more than 120 markets across the nation. The company disseminates traffic information to the public about road construction, traffic speeds, and incidents through in-vehicle and personal navigation devices, cell phones, and Web sites. NAVTEQ Traffic also provides traffic information to other private companies that disseminate information through navigation devices.  
  • A number of other companies, such as Google and Yahoo!, disseminate real-time traffic information-such as traffic flow and speed-nationally via Web sites and other means, the GAO stated. 

What's going wrong? 

  • The GAO stated that while 511 services are expanding, some states, such as Texas and Michigan do not plan to implement such services. States without 511 services may choose not to establish them because they lack adequate traffic data and funding. Furthermore, rather than using 511 services, some states may disseminate traffic information using other methods, such as the Internet and dynamic message signs. 
  • Although state and local agencies can disseminate traffic information through various methods, the information available for dissemination to the public is limited because the geographic coverage of the technologies the agencies deploy within their areas of operations to collect traffic data, such as fixed sensors and cameras, is limited, the GAO stated. 
  • Although a key data collection technology used by public agencies-fixed sensors embedded in the roadway-is generally accurate, there are reliability isses. In California, for example, some districts have sensors that function 50% of the time, while other districts' sensors function 90% of the time, the GAO stated.  
  • Based on the Department Of Transportation's 2007 surveys, technologies used by state and local agencies for collecting real-time traffic data covered about 39% of the combined freeway miles in the 64 large metropolitan areas that provided this information. While the percentage is up from 33% reported for 2004, it reveals a significant gap, given that freeways account for the majority of the nation's traffic, congestion, and travel time variability, the GAO stated. 

What may even out some of these problems is a forthcoming nationwide real-time traffic information system.  The DOT's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has started the work on such as system called the Real-Time System Management Information Program.  The FHWA issued a proposed rule in January 2009 that, when finalized perhaps by February 2010, could improve the coverage, quality, and sharing of traffic information, the GAO stated. 

Under the rule, states would need to make available certain traffic information, such as travel time, on major highways and to meet data quality standards, including standards for timeliness. State and local government officials told the GAO that these improvements would let the public better select the most efficient route to reach their final destination, which could reduce congestion and yield other benefits. 

The cost of implementing such as system is nothing to sneeze at.  The present value of the total cost for establishing real-time information programs in all states and the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas and operating these programs through 2018 would be about $1.2 billion, the GAO stated.  However, the study also found that the present value of total cost savings (about $30.2 billion) due to benefits to mobility, the environment, and safety would be greater than the present value of the costs, the GAO found. 

Still the same officials also told GAO that the proposed rule's time frames to develop the program are too short and would be difficult to implement without additional funds. 

Of course increasing the use of intelligent devices and systems could also further the problem of distracted driving. The Federal Communications Commission and the DOT recently teamed up to develop what they called high-tech solutions to the growing problem of distracted or inattentive drivers. 

The DOT and FCC said they will set up a working group to evaluate technology-based answers to the distracted driving problem and will improve outreach efforts to educate the public about the dangers of texting while driving, talking on cell phones while driving, and other distracting behavior that can lead to deadly accidents, the agencies stated.

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