TRANSPORTATION -Stuck in Traffic? IT Can Ease the Commute

Anyone who commutes by car (or has driven to the beach) knows that traffic is getting worse. In May, the Texas Transportation Institute released its 2005 Urban Mobility Report, a study that measures trends in traffic congestion from 1982 to 2003. Today’s average traveler spends 47 hours in rush-hour traffic annually, up from 16 hours in 1982. And those delays come at a cost: In 2003, Americans were out $63.1 billion in time and gasoline due to idling in traffic.

Obvious solutions to alleviate traffic would be increased road capacity, more mass transit and more carpools, but these can be problematic; road construction is expensive, and collective commuting goes against Americans’ independent mind-set. But don’t you fret, there are a number of technology-related initiatives that promise to ease our chronic traffic woes.

At the Center for Infrastructure and Transportation Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), director George List is leading a pilot project called the Advanced Traveler Information System, or ATIS. With ATIS, the speed, location and direction of approximately 200 cars equipped with wireless GPS and pocket PC devices are tracked by a central server at RPI. When these cars travel along U.S. Route 4 and other roadways near Albany, N.Y., their location is plotted on a map. Based on the progress of the cars, the drivers are sent voice-based updates that alert them to impending traffic problems and that recommend alternate routes.

Drivers of Acura’s 2005 RL sedan can get real-time traffic information from XM Radio Service, a company that transmits radio signals to cars via satellite. The Acura system monitors traffic speed, accidents, construction and the weather. Drivers receive voice-based updates and—because the broadcasts are integrated with the navigation system—also receive suggestions for alternate routes. The Acura option isn’t for everyone. For starters, the service is only available in 20 metropolitan areas (including notoriously congested Los Angeles and New York). And then, of course, there’s the RL’s base price of nearly $50,000.

Something else that could ease traffic congestion is often given short shrift by state and local transportation agencies, and yet doesn’t have to include whiz-bang technology: "Making traffic signals work more efficiently can improve traffic," says Shelley Row, the associate executive director of technical programs at the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE). Specifically, says Row, municipalities need to analyze signal timing at specific intersections every three to five years and make adjustments, something that a majority of agencies don’t do. Recently, the National Transportation Operations Coalition released the National Traffic Signal Report Card, in which 378 transportation agencies in 49 states rated their own traffic signal operations. The overall grade: a D-minus.

When it comes to managing signals, the city of Bellevue, Wash., came in at the head of the class. Mark Poch, the city’s traffic engineering manager, says 90 percent of Bellevue’s 173 traffic signals are networked to a central computer. Closed-circuit TV cameras monitor traffic flow, enabling engineers—with the help of a PC—to tweak signal timing as situations warrant. And while Poch can’t quantify time or money savings, he knows the incremental effect is significant. Take a busy intersection with 50,000 cars and then shave delays for each car by just five seconds. Multiply that throughout a metropolitan area, and there will be huge savings in time, gas and, ultimately, driver frustration.

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