Fighting Traffic with Technology

The Futurist, September 2000 | Go to article overview
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Fighting Traffic with Technology


BY PIARC Committee on Intelligent Transport

Drivers may have an easier time in the future, thanks to access to real-time traffic information, computerized navigation, and automated cars.

Modern life demands growing mobility. This mobility is increasingly provided by private cars, but the very freedom that cars offer is severely reduced by chronic traffic congestion. Our cities have responded to this crisis with policies that try to reconcile our insatiable demand for increased mobility with the need to reduce traffic jams, protect the environment, and ensure safety. But further efforts are clearly needed.

Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) can help by applying communications and information technology to the problem. Whether offering real-time information about traffic conditions, online information for journey planning, or even cars that drive themselves, these systems increase safety and reduce travel times.

The following is an overview of current types of intelligent transportation systems and some suggestions for what they might achieve in the future.

Keeping Things Moving:

Traffic Management Systems

Advanced traffic management systems ensure that networks of roadways are used to their maximum capacity. These computerized systems, commonplace all over the world, coordinate traffic signals to minimize delays, control the rate of traffic merging onto expressways, and detect accidents and vehicle breakdowns.

Such systems can be combined to solve complex traffic problems, as was done in Nagano, Japan, during the 1998 Olympic Games. Nagano's infrastructure was underdeveloped. Congestion already occurred daily and was expected to worsen with the influx of visitors. Snowy conditions were also likely.

Sensors were installed along Nagano's main arteries. The system collected and processed information about congestion, travel times, and traffic regulations. This information was provided to drivers via information boards posted along roads, telephones, faxes, and the Internet.

Infrared beacons were installed in the vehicles carrying athletes and officials. Optimum routes and travel times were calculated for official vehicles, based on their positions as broadcast by the infrared beacons, and supplied to the drivers. In addition, traffic signals were programmed to give official cars priority. The system succeeded, ensuring safe and efficient operation of official vehicles and providing accurate traffic information to other drivers.

Knowledge Is Power:

Traveler Information Systems

Uncertainty is one of the major problems that drivers face. Smart travelers use information to make better decisions about their travel plans. Transportation authorities have been collecting traffic data for many years, but they have seldom shared it with the public. Advanced traveler information systems aim to plug this gap. When more information is available to travelers, they will adjust their time, route, or mode of travel to their own advantage, improving conditions overall.

Simple traveler information systems include radio traffic reports and "localcasts" in the vicinity of special locations such as congested airports. More advanced applications include traffic congestion maps and information accessible over the Internet; in-vehicle navigation systems that provide maps, traffic flow information, and directions; and traffic information broadcast to personal communication devices (pagers, smart watches, cellular telephones, etc.).

More-detailed information that could be regularly broadcast in the future includes predicted journey times, weather conditions, Yellow Page services, parking, and park-and-ride information. Such information could encourage drivers to leave their cars at a park-and-ride site and continue the trip by public transport.

Electronic variable message signs, electronic kiosks, and cable television broadcasts are already deployed in many metropolitan areas and will soon appear in dozens more.

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