Magazine article Insight on the News

Smart Roads Help Drivers Navigate Crowded Cities

Magazine article Insight on the News

Smart Roads Help Drivers Navigate Crowded Cities

Article excerpt

The roads around Seattle are getting smarter. More than just macadam, they are loaded with sensors and cameras linked to the Internet and cell phones, allowing drivers to avoid the worst traffic. Other cities are encouraging public- and private-sector cooperation to help commuters keep moving.

Seattle drivers such as Richard Gillman, a software consultant who lives east of the city, are using the latest technology to transform their commutes from a nerve-wrecking nightmare into a leisurely drive. Before starting his gold Mercedes every morning, Gillman reaches for the secret weapon that helps him read the roads: a Hewlett-Packard HPC LX 620 color palm-top computer with a Ricochet wireless modem that provides up-to-date data and pictures of the traffic between home and work.

"I can call up a map that shows the current traffic situation throughout Seattle," says Gillman. "My basic choice is two bridges into town. If it gets real bad I can go around Lake Washington or wait a while."

Knowing where the traffic is puts Gillman at ease -- unlike the vast majority of Seattle commuters who sit in their cars, working The gas and brakes like bicycle pedals. Many of the hundreds of thousands of people who have flocked to this misty metropolis see the stunning vistas of Puget Sound and the surrounding mountains through the foggy windshields of their cars.

Gillman's personal computer and the Website www.smartTrek.org are part of a new nationwide movement called Intelligent Transportation Systems. Federal and local officials, working with business partners, think that America's traffic woes can be eased with the massive deployment of information technology. Though efforts vary, the premise is the same: Local governments compile data on congestion, accidents and road conditions; companies organize the information to make it easy for commuters to understand.

Some companies, such as Motorola and Seiko, are developing products to deliver the information to commuters in real time, whether they are in their cars, on foot or waiting for a bus. Advocates believe the technology can boost capacity on existing roads by up to one-third at a fraction of the cost of adding lanes. But skeptics argue that technology alone cannot solve the larger problem of overcrowded aging roads. Some also fear that too much technology inside cars, from cell phones to navigational systems, will distract drivers and cause more accidents.

"The problems in Seattle are typical of what is happening through our major cities -- there are too many cars and not enough infrastructure" says George Shaffner, a writer who lives in Issaquah, a suburb east of Seattle. "There is too much traffic for this technology to have much of an impact at this point. They need to build more roads."

No doubt, traffic congestion in Seattle is getting worse as more companies relocate to the area and people follow the jobs. The population of the Puget Sound region, currently 2.56 million, is expected to jump 50 percent by 2020, with most of the growth to the east of Seattle around Bellevue, Redmond and beyond. Hopes are running high that the Seattle area, home to technology-based companies such as Microsoft, Adobe Systems, Boeing, Nintendo and Amazon.com, will warm up to the idea of using technology to improve commuting. Officials spearheading the Seattle Intelligent Transportation Systems initiative, called Smart Trek, estimate that two-thirds of Seattle residents are connected to the Web and 41 percent have cellular phones.

Like Los Angeles, Washington and other major cities, Seattle is running out of room for new highways. Downtown is surrounded by water, with Puget Sound to the west, Lake Washington to the east and the Washington Ship Canal to the north. Long, steep hills run north to south, making travel east to west difficult.

"Downtown pretty much turns into a parking lot between 7:30 and 9:30 in the morning, and it is getting worse every day" says Kurt Schultz, 44, who commutes from Bellevue west into Seattle over the Route. …

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