Smart Transportation

December 1, 2001

The United States has invested hundreds of billions of dollars 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 are transforming 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.

Intelligent Transportation Systems, or ITS, refers to the integrated application of modern technologies and management strategies in our surface transportation systems. Although in some ways ITS is nothing more than the natural evolution of venerable transportation technologies such as traffic signals and information displays, the widespread application of this new technology (helped along by government support) has already begun to transform the transportation network.

Public-sector ITS applications lessen the need to build more roads by using existing infrastructure more efficiently. For example, state transportation departments now operate dozens of traffic control centers nationwide. These $20-30 million centers keep an eye on traffic by means of multiple often wall-size video images from cameras connected by miles of high-tech cable. As needed, workers dispatch emergency vehicles, adjust traffic signal timing, and relay road information to motorists.

Private-sector ITS includes in-vehicle devices to help drivers find directions, avoid accidents, get information, and enhance safety. Talking navigation systems use the military’s global positioning satellite technology and computerized maps to provide turn-by-turn directions for drivers in unfamiliar territory. Hertz is installing about 50,000 such systems in its rental car fleet. Individual consumer demand is steady but slow, partly because the systems are expensive. General Motors’ closely related wireless OnStar system has more than 100,000 subscribers. OnStar uses cell phone technology to connect drivers with human operators for directions, concierge services, and emergency assistance.

Intelligent transportation has required a heavy investment, both private and public. Since 1990, the federal government, historically a key player in developing and redeveloping the surface transportation system, has spent more than $1.3 billion, with another $900 million obligated through 2002. Independent market research for consumer products suggests that the U.S. private-sector market for ITS could exceed $300 billion over the next 15 years. Public-sector infrastructure costs over those 15 years are estimated at about $75 billion. Anticipated benefits include better air quality, lowered fuel consumption, accident mitigation, and more efficient use of emergency services, as well as reduced travel time.

ITS “works” for the same reason electronic cash registers do-because automated technologies reduce operator error, can be tied together into a system, and provide instant feedback on system performance from a central location. Until just a few years ago, surface transportation was the equivalent of the old push-button cash register and cashier. Today ITS is becoming the gleaming supermarket that speeds customers through check-out, enables them to pay electronically, dispenses information to help them make better decisions, and responds to a clean-up in Aisle 6 (or Highway 6, as the case may be).

Advanced transportation technologies are not stand-alone; they 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 makes the difference. The investments made by Washington and the states have certainly been significant. And many studies have shown that when properly integrated, ITS does reduce the need to build new roadways and comes out positive in benefit-cost analyses.

ITS will not solve all transportation problems. Critics note that by making driving time more comfortable and convenient and by making trips more predictable, ITS can exacerbate congestion by facilitating the longer daily commutes associated with suburban sprawl. Indeed, as we move into the 21st century, our nation’s roadways are still dangerous, congestion continues to escalate, and quality of life deteriorates. But by combining technological advances with the existing transportation system, we can build a network of smarter cars, smarter highways-and smarter travelers.