An Intelligent Transportation Policy

Robert Puentes

December 1, 2001

(An edited version of this article appears in the Winter 2001 Edition of the Brookings Review)

The United States has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in building and maintaining roads to accommodate auto and truck travel. Yet, no matter how much more money we spend, congestion and delays seem to get worse and political obstacles often put alternative strategies out of reach. Can the advanced technologies that in recent years have transformed American life solve our intractable traffic problems? A new universe of smarter vehicles and highways may be able to do what miles and miles of concrete and asphalt can’t.

Simply, Intelligent Transportation Systems, or “ITS”, refers to the integrated application of modern technologies and management strategies in our surface transportation systems. To put it more concretely (pardon the pun), ITS includes many different technical augmentations to otherwise familiar equipment: traffic signals that are centrally controlled by computer; electronic toll collection tags that enable drivers to pay without stopping at toll booths; changeable message signs that provide information concerning the next bus or train or about rough traffic conditions ahead; talking navigation systems that provide turn-by-turn directions through satellite technology for drivers while en-route. Contraptions that until very recently were thought of as “electronic gizmos” or “gee-whiz technology” are now nearly as common as the computer on your desk.

Traffic control centers now operate in dozens of locations across the U.S. In many ways, these centers are the embodiment of ITS and represent the latest in public sector transportation system management.
Montgomery County, MD’s Transportation Management Center
Visit Their Website to Learn More About ITS
Resembling mission control for NASA, workers in these centers keep an eye on traffic by monitoring dozens of often wall-size video images from cameras connected by miles and miles of high tech cable. From there, these multi-agency centers are able to dispatch emergency vehicles as needed, adjust signal timing to reflect current conditions and relay important information to motorists about those conditions. Measured benefits include air quality improvements, reductions in fuel consumption, accident mitigation and more efficient use of emergency services. Naturally, traffic control centers’ costs vary depending on many factors such as their location and complexity. The TranStar Center in Houston was built for $13.5 million. Project costs for the Regional Traffic Management Center in Minneapolis’ Twin Cities was $23.5 million. Indianapolis’ TrafficWise system will cost a total of $25-$30 million.
Private sector ITS focuses on devices installed in the vehicle to help drivers find directions, avoid accidents, receive information and enhance perceptions of personal safety. Talking navigation systems provide turn-by-turn directions for drivers while en-route. These devices know the location of a vehicle through the military’s global positioning satellite (GPS) technology and use computerized maps to calculate directions. These devices are especially attractive to those renting cars (Hertz is installing about 50,000 in its fleet), while consumer demand for individual purchases is steady

Key Intelligent Transportation Elements:

Central traffic signal control
Freeway management
Transit & fleet management
Electronic toll collection & fare payment
Advanced emergency response
Regional multi-modal traveler information
Satellite-based navigation systems
Driver assistance devices
but slow – partly because the devices remain relatively expensive (averaging about $2,000 each.) Also popular is General Motors’ wireless OnStar system with over 100,000 subscribers. OnStar uses cell phone technology to connect drivers with human operators for directions, concierge services and emergency assistance.

Independent market research for these and other types of consumer products indicates that the private sector market for ITS in this country is expected to exceed $300 billion over the next 15 years. Public sector infrastructure over the same period is estimated at about $75 billion. More than half a million jobs are expected to be created in the ITS industry over the next two decades.1

The key for all this intelligence is the coalescence of the public infrastructure and the private devices. The next generation of navigation systems, for example, will “talk” with transportation management centers to obtain current traffic information and provide directions to the traveler based on that information to help them avoid delays. Another example of this nexus is related to payment systems. Electronic toll collection systems are employed on about 100 facilities throughout the U.S. and boast more than 5 million subscribers. Electronic fare cars have become standard ways to pay for transit trips worldwide.

ITS “works” for the same reason electronic cash registers work: because automated technologies reduce operator error, allow similar devices to be tied together enabling them to function as a system, and provides instant feedback on the system’s performance from a central location. Until just a few years ago, surface transportation could be thought of as the old push-button dinosaurs cashiers labored over. ITS represents the new gleaming supermarket that speeds customers through check-out lines, enables them to pay electronically, dispenses important information to enable customers to make better decisions, and responds to a clean-up in Aisle 6 (or Highway 6, as the case may be).

However, ITS is not a magic bullet that is going to solve all transportation problems. In fact, a credible criticism is that these technologies make the time drivers spend in their vehicles more comfortable and convenient and cause trips to be more predictable. Therefore, ITS can actually exacerbate congestion by facilitating the longer daily commutes associated with sprawling suburban development. A growing body of research is demonstrating that the problem of traffic congestion is best tackled by addressing the connection between transportation and land use. And unfortunately, linkages between intelligent transportation and land use are spotty at best.

A History of Federal Investments

What we do know is how advanced technologies are fundamentally redefining surface transportation and the role the federal investment has in supporting that effort. Since 1990, federal investment has totaled more than $1.3 billion with another $900 million obligated through 2002. This should not be too surprising as the federal government has always played a key role in the development and redevelopment of the surface transportation system. In 1956, the Federal Highway Act created today’s Interstate System and the Highway Trust Fund dollars that paid for it – using federally imposed gas taxes. There were a few reauthorizations to the highway program over the years, but none more revolutionary than the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, commonly known by its less cumbersome name, ISTEA (“Ice Tea”). Among its landmark provisions, ISTEA formally created the federal ITS program.

Although in many ways ITS is basically the natural evolution of venerable transportation technologies such as traffic signals and roadway sensors, in many others the world of ITS harkened some back to Norman Bel Geddes’ “Futurama” exhibit at the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. GM dazzled patrons with visions of an advanced highway system that would zip drivers effortlessly along uncongested roadways. Fifty years later the vision resurfaced with the high profile field test of the Automated Highway System. A public-private partnership led by GM, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and U.S. DOT, the automated highway proposed a solution to solving traffic congestion by allowing drivers to cruise hands-free while reading the newspaper, sleeping or a variety of other sundry activities. These vehicles would move automatically through the use of advanced technologies such as automatic cruise control that senses vehicles and objects and automatically applies the brakes before letting it get too close.

Of course, the automated highway never came to fruition but some of its elements have endured due to their proven and unique capability in reducing the number, rate, and severity of motor vehicle crashes – the key focus of U.S. DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). According to NHTSA, 90% of the deaths on our nation’s roadways (which occur every 13 minutes) are due to driver error. U.S. DOT estimates that more than 50,000 annual crashes could be prevented through the integration of intelligent lane keeping and collision-avoidance technologies. Understanding consumers’ high regard for their own personal safety, car companies have begun hawking such devices during nighttime news programs. Leveraging this private sector investment, U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater recently urged U.S. auto manufacturers to develop such devices in order to achieve a national goal of reducing crash fatalities by 20 percent over the next 10 years. More intriguing is Slater’s challenge to metropolitan areas to deploy the infrastructure portion – recognizing that all this advanced gadgetry on the vehicle is no good unless it can communicate with the roadway.

A System of Systems – Benefits and Costs

Probably the most important element of this policy discussion is that intelligent transportation technologies are not stand-alone, but are designed to work within the existing transportation system. High-tech components by themselves will not go a long way in reducing congestion, pollution or operating costs – rather, it is the integration of devices, systems and agencies that make the difference. The investments made by the federal government as well as those made by the states have certainly been significant. And many studies have shown that when properly integrated, ITS does reduce the need for new roadway construction and comes out positive in benefit/costs analyses:

  • Maryland’s statewide highway monitoring program finds very high benefits in its incident response program over the program’s costs. The benefits of reductions in delay, fuel consumption, and ancillary accidents is estimated to total $30.5 million, about seven times the $4 million cost of the initial capital investment and annual maintenance and operations. 2
  • In Atlanta, the benefit/cost ratio for the freeway and incident management system was 21/2 to 1. This is based on total benefits of $44 million in reduced delay time calculated as the decrease in the duration of incidents coupled with savings generated by enabling traffic to move at full capacity. Hardware, system and operating costs are estimated to be just under $20 million per year.3
  • Efficiently linking traffic signals through leased telephone lines to a central control room in the Tysons Corner area of Fairfax County, Virginia was found to save motorists nearly $20 million per year based mainly on reductions in delay ($18 million) but also fuel savings and emissions reductions.4

Overall, ITS infrastructure will generate a benefit-cost ratio of 8.8 to 1 for the nation’s 75 largest most congested areas for reasons not unlike those expressed above. But again, unless these high tech elements are deployed in an integrated, coordinated, cooperative manner, these ratios are not likely to be realized. Recognizing this, the U.S. DOT was charged by Congress with ensuring that ITS projects that are funded with Highway Trust Fund dollars conform to a national system of architecture and standards.

Driven to Distraction

While there is general agreement that advanced technologies have direct benefits to transportation ? there is quite a bit of debate over the best and safest ways to deploy such devices in the vehicles.

Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission approved the U.S. DOT’s petition to assign one of the few remaining “N11” numbers for advanced traveler information services. This significant announcement enables drivers to access current traveler, traffic and transit information by dialing 511 from any telephone (similar to 411 for information or 911 for emergencies) as opposed to a seven digit number that always changes from one jurisdiction to the next. This is important because about 45 metropolitan areas and over 100 transit agencies operate some type of telephone-based traveler information system. A motorist driving up the I-95 corridor between Washington, DC and New York City is presented with 11 such services, all with different telephone numbers. To address the next challenge of deciding who fields the incoming telephone call (private companies often operate such fee-based services) Vice President Gore proposed a new program that would provide start-up funds for assistance.

However, at the same time the FCC granted the petition, one of the U.S.DOT?s agencies, NHTSA was studying the growing issue of driver distraction. According to NHTSA, 44% of drivers have telephones in their vehicles or carry them when they drive; 7% have access to email and 3% have fax capabilities. NHTSA researchers estimate that 25% of all fatal crashes are caused by driver distraction. The Network of Employers for Traffic Safety estimates that driver inattention is a factor in 25 to 50 percent of all highway collisions. And a 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that talking on a phone while driving quadrupled the risk of a crash and was almost as dangerous as driving while drunk.

Using cell phones while driving has already been banned in cities and counties throughout the U.S. and support of such restrictions is growing. Experts say that the in-vehicle navigation systems that exist in over a million vehicles provide the greatest distraction.

Big Brother and Smart Transportation

ITS2.jpgPerhaps one of the most contentious issues surrounding ITS deployment is related to the issue of automated enforcement technologies. As the name suggests, such systems snap photographs of vehicles in the act of a specific traffic violation. Photographs are usually taken of the rear license plate and matched against a state?s Department of Motor Vehicle database. The registered owner of the vehicle is then mailed a ticket or other notification that an infraction has occurred.

Such technologies have all the essential elements of ITS products and services: they use advanced electronic equipment, combined with computers and telecommunications to address a transportation-related problem. However, when the national ITS program was being developed several years ago automated enforcement technologies were conspicuously absent. Such was the fear of a hostile response from the general public over privacy and civil liberty concerns.

At least in some respects, these worries were unfounded. Despite this oversight by the transportation community, certain automated enforcement technologies began to proliferate – particularly red light cameras. Local decision-makers and public safety officials all across the U.S. see these cameras as key tools in their never-ending quest for safer roads. In fact, at least 21 states have passed enabling legislation to support red light cameras and U.S. DOT has offered grants to study the technology in five others.

As it turns out, the American public strongly supports their use. Surveys of large metro area residents sponsored by the Insurance Research Council reveal that 83% of respondents favor the use of red light cameras. However, not all enforcement technologies enjoy such support. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that only 57% of respondents support the use of photo radar, a similar technology that nabs speeders. Likewise, automated emissions technology that detects gross polluters from the roadside has not exactly garnered a lot of support from the general public. What is clear is that the public (correctly) perceives red light running as a serious traffic threat and condones innovative methods to alleviate the problem. On the other hand, speeding and aggressive driving violations are another matter entirely and “Big Brother” references always seem to accompany this argument. Clearly, outreach and education is needed.

Preparing for the Future

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has stated openly that the Interstate Highway System is essentially complete (that word “essentially” is important). In doing so, they will be relying on advanced technologies, connected systems and improved communications between agencies, businesses and travelers to provide and improve transportation services.

So does this mean that the FHWA will disband? Far from it. Like others, FHWA has initiated a program to prepare for the next round of federal transportation legislation. ISTEA was reauthorized as the Transportation Efficiency Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which in turn expires in 2003. FHWA recognizes that the challenge for the future is in the maintenance and operation of the existing transportation system. A national dialogue has been initiated on the federal level, which indicates that the focus has shifted from the stovepipe implementation of individual projects (high tech and otherwise) to continuous, seamless performance of the entire network. No longer exclusively focused on laying down ribbons of asphalt, FHWA appears ready to include management and operations as equal partners, along with planning, design and construction.

It is, of course, naïve to think that road construction will halt entirely. The federal government will continue to build roads, as will the states. However, there are some signs that transportation policy on a statewide level is changing, too. This past summer, the New Jersey legislature passed a bill signed by the Governor that emphasizes a “fix-it-first” transportation policy. Specific provisions require the state DOT to focus on the rehabilitation and technical augmentation of existing transportation facilities with new highway construction to come only after explicit approval of the legislature. Other elements of the bill include efforts to study highway congestion mitigation through smart transportation technologies. Make no mistake; this is a radical departure from traditional transportation policy.

Unfortunately, the uncontrolled Congressional earmarking of federal transportation dollars continues to hamper U.S. DOT policies. As has been the case in past years, the House and Senate continue to earmark almost all of the available ITS funds for specific projects back home. The trough for the ITS earmarks was the Deployment Incentives Program which was designed to seed projects that contribute to the U.S.DOT goals of integration and connectivity. Although both the Senate and House included report language emphasizing these goals, the list of earmarks were included in the bill as statutory language and therefore has the force and effect as law (as opposed to report language which is viewed only as recommendations to the responsible executive branch agency). Since projects in the bill are identified only by geographic location (e.g., “North Central Pennsylvania” or “State of North Carolina”) it is often impossible to know exactly how the money is to be spent and whether or not the policy goals and objectives of the U.S. DOT are to be properly considered. More stringent evaluation and assessment under uniform, discretionary criteria is needed. Our nation has too many diverse needs to earmark an entire pool of funds and bypassing debate and discussion on these issues.

A responsible federal policy would be one that is, of course, unified among the branches. But also that gives priority to those projects that adhere to a fix-it-first mentality and clearly contribute to integration, cooperation and interoperability. More than smart cars, smart highways and smart buses – new transportation policies seek to “build” a smarter intermodal transportation system with smarter travelers. But despite such advances, our nation’s roadways are still very dangerous, congestion continues to escalate, and quality of life suffers the consequences. The challenge is to make sure transportation policy and investment serves the needs of people and the region, not just the needs of vehicles and facilities.

Photo Credits:
1. Montgomery County, Maryland’s Transportation Management Center
2. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Work Cited:

1. The Market for Emerging Technology Applications in Transportation, Hagler Bailly, 1998.

2. Chesapeake Highway Advisories Routing Traffic (CHART) Incident Response Evaluation, COMSIS Corporation, May 1996.

3. Calculating Benefits for Georgia’s Intelligent Transportation System, Georgia Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration, September 23, 1998.

4. SMART Traffic Signal System, Virginia Department of Transportation Engineering Group, March 2000.