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Fighting Traffic with Technology.

BY PIARC Committee on Intelligent Transport

Drivers may have an easier time in the future, thanks to access to real-time traffic information, computerized navigation, and automated cars.

Modern life demands growing mobility. This mobility is increasingly provided by private cars, but the very freedom that cars offer is severely reduced by chronic traffic congestion. Our cities have responded to this crisis with policies that try to reconcile our insatiable demand for increased mobility with the need to reduce traffic jams, protect the environment, and ensure safety. But further efforts are clearly needed.

Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) can help by applying communications and information technology to the problem. Whether offering real-time information about traffic conditions, online information for journey planning, or even cars that drive themselves, these systems increase safety and reduce travel times.

The following is an overview of current types of intelligent transportation systems and some suggestions for what they might achieve in the future.

Keeping Things Moving:

Traffic Management Systems

Advanced traffic management systems ensure that networks of roadways are used to their maximum capacity. These computerized systems, commonplace all over the world, coordinate traffic signals to minimize delays, control the rate of traffic merging onto expressways, and detect accidents and vehicle breakdowns.

Such systems can be combined to solve complex traffic problems, as was done in Nagano, Japan, during the 1998 Olympic Games. Nagano's infrastructure was underdeveloped. Congestion already occurred daily and was expected to worsen with the influx of visitors. Snowy conditions were also likely.

Sensors were installed along Nagano's main arteries. The system collected and processed information about congestion, travel times, and traffic regulations. This information was provided to drivers via information boards posted along roads, telephones, faxes, and the Internet.

Infrared beacons were installed in the vehicles carrying athletes and officials. Optimum routes and travel times were calculated for official vehicles, based on their positions as broadcast by the infrared beacons, and supplied to the drivers. In addition, traffic signals were programmed to give official cars priority. The system succeeded, ensuring safe and efficient operation of official vehicles and providing accurate traffic information to other drivers.

Knowledge Is Power:

Traveler Information Systems

Uncertainty is one of the major problems that drivers face. Smart travelers use information to make better decisions about their travel plans. Transportation authorities have been collecting traffic data for many years, but they have seldom shared it with the public. Advanced traveler information systems aim to plug this gap. When more information is available to travelers, they will adjust their time, route, or mode of travel to their own advantage, improving conditions overall.

Simple traveler information systems include radio traffic reports and "localcasts" in the vicinity of special locations such as congested airports. More advanced applications include traffic congestion maps and information accessible over the Internet; in-vehicle navigation systems that provide maps, traffic flow information, and directions; and traffic information broadcast to personal communication devices (pagers, smart watches, cellular telephones, etc.).

More-detailed information that could be regularly broadcast in the future includes predicted journey times, weather conditions, Yellow Page services, parking, and park-and-ride information. Such information could encourage drivers to leave their cars at a park-and-ride site and continue the trip by public transport.

Electronic variable message signs, electronic kiosks, and cable television broadcasts are already deployed in many metropolitan areas and will soon appear in dozens more. A radio channel is being launched in Europe to provide traffic information in the user's own language. Personal information services, such as Traffic-master (United Kingdom) or Visionaute (France) already enable subscribers to avoid unnecessary delays by avoiding congestion.

Automatic systems that detect accidents or traffic jams and broadcast warnings to variable roadside signs or in-vehicle devices can greatly improve safety. For example, Los Angeles's "Smart Corridor" project uses an array of cameras and other devices to monitor traffic flow on the Santa Monica Freeway. When an accident or heavy congestion occurs, controllers in the traffic center steer motorists off the freeway onto alternate routes by means of variable message signs. Detoured drivers are guided through parallel city routes and back to the freeway with the help of special "trailblazer" signs.

Finding your way in an unfamiliar city using only a printed map is becoming more and more difficult because of traffic congestion. Vehicle navigation systems using the satellite-based Global Positioning System and CD-ROM digital maps are intelligent answers to this problem, but these systems don't take the real-time traffic situation into account.

High-Tech Directions

In a number of cities, especially in Japan, travelers are able to routinely enter a destination into a system that will then calculate the optimum route based on current traffic conditions. The system gives the driver directions either through visual diagrams on a screen or by synthetic voice. In some cases, drivers also have the option of seeing the current picture of traffic congestion displayed on an electronic map and choosing their own routes accordingly.

Such advanced systems will require enough traffic sensors in the road to collect and distribute reliable and timely traffic information. They will also need better wireless connections to quickly handle the data moving between the car's computer and the system's central computer.

When the Car Becomes the Driver

Advanced vehicle control systems actively aid the driver in the task of driving. Vehicle manufacturers and suppliers see a large potential market for these products. Governments encourage these technologies because they improve safety and enhance road capacity.

Technologies already available include antilock brakes, traction control, and skid control. Emerging technologies include adaptive cruise control, driver drowsiness detectors, infrared night vision systems, and lane warning sensors.

Further in the future are automatic collision avoidance systems, which will relieve the driver of some or all control of the vehicle. These will be similar to autopilot systems in airplanes. Fully automated highways will require not only in-vehicle controls, but also in-highway equipment that will guide vehicles to their destinations.

Much work has been done on systems that enhance the vision of drivers in poor weather. This can be done through infrared or other video techniques to provide an image of the road ahead, shown to the driver in a display superimposed over the normal view through the windshield.

Driver assistance such as intelligent cruise controls are beginning to arrive on the market. These detect when the driver's vehicle is following another vehicle too closely and either warn the driver or automatically slow the vehicle to maintain a safe distance. Other systems can detect vehicles straying out of their lane and again warn the driver or guide the vehicle automatically back into the middle of the lane.

Some accidents result from drivers falling asleep at the wheel. Systems are now available to detect drowsiness and sound an alert to wake the driver. Similar systems can detect an imminent collision and deploy crash restraints such as air bags. Other devices actively under development will detect potential collisions and warn the driver or possibly take action automatically.

Collision avoidance systems are intermediate steps toward the more distant goal of complete vehicle automation, a concept that has been successfully demonstrated in Japan, Europe, and the United States in recent years.

Managing Emergencies

Travelers want to feel that they are in secure environments where help is immediately at hand when needed. In the case of serious injury or accident, the speed with which skilled first aid can be rendered to victims has a major impact on the medical outcome. Thus, any system that shortens the time before help arrives will save lives.

Such systems are being implemented by private organizations or consortia in Europe and the United States. They require the combination of vehicle location, as with a Global Positioning System, and wireless communication. Emergency notification can be initiated manually--by the driver pushing a panic button--or automatically--through the air bag triggering mechanism, for example. The automatic notification of emergencies, sometimes known as Mayday services, is very important in remote rural areas outside the reach of cellular telephones.

Pay As You Go

Electronic toll collection systems are installed at many toll plazas, enabling drivers to pay tolls automatically without cash and without stopping at a toll station. These systems reduce delays and prevent fraud and toll avoidance.

Simple systems are now commonplace around the world. These systems use an electronic tag, which is detected each time the vehicle passes a toll plaza. The driver is then sent a bill, or the toll can be automatically deducted from a prepaid account.

More-advanced systems, which allow transactions at expressway speeds, are used in Toronto on Highway 407. The Melbourne city link road in Australia uses a similar system. Both of these roads offer only electronic toll facilities.

Electronic tolling has worked well in Oslo, Norway. Threatened with chronic congestion, the city asked drivers to use an electronic tolling system. Since 1990, drivers must pay a toll to enter Oslo's beltway. Drivers can stop to pay with cash at a conventional toll booth, or--in the case of the 73% who hold a prepaid ticket--enter the beltway without stopping if their car is equipped with an electronic tag. The windshield-mounted tag contains a driver ID and account information and sends this information via two-way radio communication to a roadside beacon. The tag is checked against a database, and, if the account is not valid, the vehicle is photographed and the driver fined.

Electronic tolling improves driver convenience and reduces labor costs to road operators. Even the non-equipped vehicles benefit, since the lines in the manually operated lanes at the toll plaza also get shorter, reducing the time delay in toll payment.

Improving Public Transport

More-efficient public transportation is crucial to reducing congestion, and intelligent systems can be applied here as well.

For example, the "5T" system helps buses run on time in Turin, Italy. On board each bus is a location system that identifies its position (to the nearest five meters) and reports automatically to a central control room. If the bus is behind schedule, the control center changes the timing of traffic signals ahead of the vehicle. This public transport priority system has improved bus travel time by 14% with no adverse effect on private traffic.

In Paris, a smart card makes the buses and Metro easier to use. The card is prepaid and can be reloaded at vending points at bus and Metro stations. The card communicates with the on-vehicle ticket machine or the ticket gate just by its proximity; it does not have to be placed in a slot, making it very convenient.

Putting It All Together

Transportation professionals need to be aware of the benefits offered by this new technology and the challenges in making it work. Governments around the world are implementing intelligent transportation systems, and they are finding that their efforts require considerable cooperation among many agencies and organizations.

Many different stakeholders are involved. Transportation professionals need to build alliances with public transport operators, private sector information service providers, city planning authorities, banks, electronic payment system providers, and, not least, the general traveling public.

The overriding purpose of intelligent transportation systems is to save cost, time, and lives, and this objective is common to all regions of the world.

About the Committee

This article draws upon the ITS Handbook 2000: Recommendations from the World Road Association (PIARC) by the PIARC Committee on Intelligent Transport, edited by Kan Chen and John C. Miles.

The World Road Association (PIARC) is a worldwide association for exchanging knowledge and techniques about roads and transportation. Copies of the book can be obtained by contacting Artech House, 685 Canton Street, Norwood, Massachusetts, 02062. Telephone 1-800-225-9977; Web site (Or order online from

A French version of the book can be obtained by contacting PIARC at La Grande Arche, paroi Nerd, Niveau 8, 92055 LA DEFENSE, Cedex, France. Telephone 33-1479-68121; Web site; e-mail

Trend Analysis: Intelligent Transportation Systems

As more and more governments turn to intelligent transportation systems (ITS) to alleviate traffic problems, we can be sure this technology will have important effects on our lives. Here is an attempt to identify some those effects.


The cost of wasted fuel and time caused by traffic congestion exceeds $72 billion per year in the United States, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Proponents of ITS say the technology will save much of this money by making transport more efficient. While the money saved by individuals may be relatively small, the money to be saved by commercial transportation fleets could be considerable. Lowering the cost of transport could mean lower prices to consumers in the end, especially for difficult-to-transport products such as fresh meats and produce.

In addition, if ITS reduces accidents, it could save part of the economic cost of those accidents, estimated at over $150 billion in 1994 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

However, implementing ITS in a metropolitan area will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, though bond issues could spread out the burden into future years.


While the gas money individuals save because of ITS may be small, reducing the travel time and stress levels of our daily commute may have important social effects. As many observers have noted, we become less civil toward one another when we get behind the wheels of our cars, seeing other motorists not as citizens but as competitors, or, worse, as obstacles. If ITS works as it is supposed to, we may see a rise in civility on the roadway. In addition, the extra leisure time gained could improve quality of life.

Finally, automobile accidents are a leading cause of death for people 5 to 29 years old, killing over 40,000 people in 1998, according to the latest statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If ITS delivers on its promise to reduce accidents, the social benefits of saved lives could be immeasurable.


Government leaders tend to favor ITS because of its promise to reduce traffic jams and improve safety--two politically popular ideas. A large ITS project may also boost local economies by providing jobs. However, such projects come with huge price tags: Installing ITS infrastructure in a large metropolitan area would cost $420 million, according to the World Road Association. The obvious solution is to raise taxes (gasoline taxes seem a likely target) or to create new ones, perhaps a "driving tax" based on your odometer reading or a "car tax" similar to taxes on homes.

Governments may choose to privatize ITS projects, but, here, too, the cost of investment will be recouped by the private company from roadway users in the form of toils or fees.

Expect new legislation as governments negotiate the legal twists and turns of intelligent roadways. For example, who might be responsible for an accident on an automated highway--one of the drivers, the highway operators, or the company that designed the automated car?


Proponents of ITS say the improved efficiency will reduce vehicle emissions, thereby improving air quality. For example, widely used interactive navigation systems in the United States could reduce vehicle emissions by 5%-16%, according to one assessment reported by the World Road Association. The increased use of vehicles powered by fuel cells, whose only waste emission is water, will likely increase this effect.

However, some environmental groups may oppose ITS projects that involve building new highways or widening existing highways, citing possible disruption of local ecosystems and adverse effects on the plants and animals that live nearby.


ITS could reduce automobile injuries and fatalities in the demographic groups most likely to have accidents--teens, the elderly, and males.

To the extent that ITS makes commuting easier, it is likely to increase the trend toward suburbanization and exurbanization. People will live farther and farther from the city and their workplaces. Cities will mushroom across the countryside.

If automated cars and highways become common, it could benefit the elderly whose mobility is restricted when they can no longer drive. Formerly homebound seniors could return to work or take a more active part in community life. In addition, the burden on parents, who must spend large amounts of time driving their children to soccer games and other activities, could be reduced.


Intelligent transportation systems will rely on quick wireless communication and computing power. ITS research will likely spur advances in these fields, if only by providing a proving ground for new technology. Wireless communication with a bandwidth broad enough to accommodate real-time video will likely become an essential part of on-board navigation systems, showing drivers backups and accidents ahead. Computers sophisticated enough to recognize traffic incidents from camera images and powerful enough to calculate alternative routes for thousands of drivers will be an essential part of traffic control systems.

ITS will make cars increasingly sophisticated--and complicated. Initially, this may make the task of driving more difficult: Drivers will not only have to watch the road but keep one eye on a video screen and one ear tuned to the latest traffic bulletins. However, as cars themselves take over more and more of the driver's tasks, the new technology should make driving easier, to the point where a car's occupant could sit back and watch the scenery, read, or even nap.

Jeff Minerd
COPYRIGHT 2000 World Future Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:traffic management systems
Publication:The Futurist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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