As population continues to grow, Puget Sound’s roads will remain busy and — at peak travel times — congested. Smart strategies can complement and enhance our state and regional investments in road and transit infrastructure. Known collectively as “intelligent transportation systems,” or ITS, these technologies are used on roads and vehicles to help prevent congestion and accidents and improve responses when they occur.
The stakes are high. Forty-three thousand Americans die on our nation’s highways a year, and hundreds of billions of dollars lost in traffic congestion weigh down the economy. More rapid deployment of ITS will enable us to make a quantum leap in solving these challenges.
The Puget Sound region is actually a leader in ITS. Puget Sound has pioneered those annoying meters on freeway entrance ramps, which actually work. Variable messaging signs are used to let you know, for instance, that it’ll take 47 minutes from the Ship Canal Bridge to South Everett. “Incident management response” tow trucks provided with real-time roadway information are positioned to swoop in on State Route 520 and move stalled vehicles. State-of-the-art electronic tolling is coming to several locations in the region, and likely more thereafter.
Much more needs to be done in this region, however, on basic congestion-reducing programs such as traffic light synchronization.
A report last November by a federal study team that examined how Puget Sound’s 2,319 signalized intersections are managed, noted, “a program to focus on the overall regional operation of the traffic signal systems” here “does not appear to exist.”
Already though, municipal and county agencies in the region have been upgrading signal controls and installing communications networks that let traffic flow from green-to-green-to-green, even across city boundaries. And in reaction to the critical federal study, a new Traffic Operations Committee of city and county signal planning professionals was formed by the Puget Sound Regional Council in April. If the traffic operations committee meetings translate into funding and work on the ground improving signal timing, there’s potential to cut such delays by as much as 30 percent.
The challenge is resources. According to Pete Briglia at the University of Washington’s TransNow center, local governments do not have the funding or staff to update the timing of lights every few years. With low-bid government procurement requirements and different vendors who do not want to share protocols for their systems, new technologies cannot live up to their promise.
As county legislative bodies finalize their mega roads and transit tax package for a November vote, they should dedicate additional funding to traffic light synchronization and other technologies. It could help sway voters who cannot grasp how this region can lead the nation in gee-whiz technologies but cannot seem to time traffic lights from Lake City to Bothell.
The ITS story gets better. It’s possible to add equipment to detect behind-schedule buses and provide them with an extended green or delayed red light in crowded corridors. This transit priority signaling solution will be an important part of the “rapid” in the bus rapid transit deployed by King County Metro and Snohomish County’s Community Transit. And the state Department of Transportation, city of Seattle and King County Metro have developed sophisticated “corridor management plans” for improved transit performance and reduced traffic delays.
Down the road, the new Traffic Operations Committee will take up an idea being pursued in Europe called Active Traffic Management. This includes deploying electronic signs, signals and even roadway markings such as airport taxiway lights that can alter the configuration of lanes and modify speed limits in response to changing traffic volumes.
Nationally and regionally, the stage is set for broader recognition and integration of ITS solutions to traffic congestion. Government and the private sector are working to bring applications that better integrate our roads and transit infrastructure with the vehicles and people who travel on them. Better incident response and advanced crash avoidance (including intersection collision avoidance systems) will make our roads and public transportation system safer. Real-time navigation — providing travelers with the most efficient routes based on current traffic conditions — will lessen congestion and reduce fuel use. Smart parking systems, which will direct travelers directly to an available parking spot, will bring even greater reliability.
ITS systems yield massive increases in information that system managers and travelers can use in achieving a more efficient transportation network with seamless connections between modes. Companies such as Microsoft are in the forefront of designing ways to collect, interpret and distribute this information.
Ramping up ITS technologies nationally and in Puget Sound means that the very roads and transit systems in which taxpayers invest billions of dollars can run smoother and perform better. Because time is our most valuable nonrenewable resource, that’s an investment we can’t afford to minimize.
Bruce Agnew is director of the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center For Regional Development. Neil Schuster is President/CEO of ITS America, an organization that promotes use of intelligent transportation systems in the U.S.