How the Information Age Can Make Streets and Transit More Efficient

In Pittsburgh, elderly para-transit riders get automated phone calls with the precise arrival time of their vehicle. Bus priority lanes and preferential traffic signals in the Twin Cities are improving on-time service. Here in Washington, DC, stored value on SmartTrip cards pays for Metro parking, train and bus, and it can sync with pre-tax employee transit benefits. In San Francisco, dynamic pricing varies parking rates based on supply and demand, reducing traffic and helping people find available parking spaces.

In the future, we won't all be zipping around in our little hovercraft bubbles (as imagined by Disney in 1958)...

All of these transportation improvements are happening already – they’re examples of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) that are being heralded in a new report as a way to set the bar higher for transportation efficiency. Transportation for America, ITS America and other groups have teamed up to urge Congress to include technological enhancements in its transportation policies. They’re hoping these changes can help us get more out of our streets without building sprawl-inducing highways.

...but we will be cutting traffic with parking sensors that allow cities to set curbside prices based on demand. Top image: ##'s Magic Highway Promo##. Bottom image: SFPark.

ITS is a catch-all phrase for the ways digital technology can be applied to all modes of transportation. There are familiar forms of ITS on highways. E-ZPass has been around for about 15 years already. Electronic highway signs warning of delays or detours are becoming commonplace. Now, Google traffic maps supplement radio reports to help drivers pick more efficient routes. Add to the mix Zipcar and other car-sharing services, or vanpools with real-time tracking, and ITS becomes not just a method to move cars more efficiently, but to make streets more efficient by taking cars off the road.

“The technologies already exist,” says Lilly Shoup, the report author at T4A. “Now it’s a matter of being more strategic in integrating them throughout the transportation network.”

Integration with infrastructure and vehicles is key – and it’s why this is the moment to shine the light on these technologies. Smart phone-based ride-sharing or bus-tracking, for example, wouldn’t have had much impact five years ago. But the proliferation of smart phones has made these real options. Building a transportation network based on technology is more possible when that technology is abundant in all the places you’re trying to link together.

And it can have a real environmental impact.

Japan credits technology with helping improve traffic flows and reducing emissions by 11 million tons, according to T4A. And a recent GAO report found that the benefits of deploying a real-time traffic information system across the country would outweigh the cost by a factor of 25 to 1.

Compare that to what the report calls “the more conventional solution of adding new highway capacity, which has a benefit-to-cost ratio estimated at 2.7 to 1.”

T4A, ITS America and their partners want the federal government to embrace these new technologies. Their recommendations are pretty loose: establishing emissions reductions targets and incentivizing technological innovations at the state and regional levels. With the variety of technological options out there, they aren’t prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach to cities and regions.

Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) quietly introduced a bill on transportation optimization right before the House broke for recess, but details of the legislation are not yet available.

9 thoughts on How the Information Age Can Make Streets and Transit More Efficient

  1. This is all nuts: just another way to funnel public money into the pockets of private technology contractors who promise snake oil and delivery nothing — every single time.

    The ways to make “transit and streets more efficient” are simple and well known and widely implemented and cheap and obvious and require exactly zero innovation:

    * Street real estate and intersection priority allocated based upon vehicle occupancy. One bus gets 40 times more time and space than 1 private car.

    * Regular interval (10, 15, 20, 30, 60 minute), predictable, usefully frequent transit service.

    * Connecting transit service.

    * Zero time penalty and zero fare penalty transfers, within and between modes.

    * One ticket, printed on paper and involving no kickbacks to defense contractors like Cubic, works everything.

    * Simple fare structure, with attractive and hence almost universally used unlimited-use tickets (1 hour, 3 hours, 24 hours, 7 days, 30 days, 365 days). No “smart cards”, no fare gates, no delays: get on and go.

    * Capital investments based upon the total fully amortized capital and operating cost of NEW riders attracted by a more EFFICIENT INVESTMENT, not upon kickbacks to the likes of Bechtel, Parsons Brinkerhoff, and other transit-industrial mafiosi, or the nostalgic dreams of little boys obsessed by trains. In particular, if a multi billion “investment” results in higher operating cost, you know somebody is being taken to the cleaners. Just don’t do it!

    But … ITS will save us. This time for sure! Just sign this blank check here.

  2. I agree with pretty much all the points on Richard Mlynarik’s list. However, I’ve found technology-based services like NextBus extremely useful, even though it’s not nearly as reliable as it used to be (at least for SF Muni).

    Other technology that’s impressed me is the handheld itinerary-printing machines that bus conductors and station staff had in London, which on the spot provided me with the fastest transit trip to the airport, using real-time data. I would’ve missed my plane without it.

    Technology can—and should—compliment Richard’s list. It needn’t be used just as a band aid.

  3. Let’s not forget the ITS technology currently used to run Bixi and other bike-sharing programs. Technology ranging from a “key” that unlocks a bike and automatically bills the user to telling the user how many bikes are in the local docking ports.

  4. We are doing some of these things now including interactive voice, automated phone calls for bus arrival or late notice, mobile or web tracking of buses, smartphone mobile apps to track buses, smartphone apps for social networking carpooling and vanpooling. All of these tools give better control (and save costs) for managers and create unique experiences for users.

    Unfortunately, the article is right in that transportation is often lacking in innovation, particularly in government funded environments.

  5. Technology based solutions will be with us well into the future – just look around our homes. The ITS solutions that make us safer and helps us save time are being adopted daily across the globe. Some of the ITS applications are self-contained and can be automated – like NextBus/NextTrain information systems, but many others like large urban traffic management systems DO NOT work well without skilled human beings behind the scenes making timely decisions and clicking the right buttons. Looking at the potential of these solutions to enhance our lives and communities most of us will want them – but there will always be exceptions. The key question is are we willing to pay for them OR more appropriately for current times – can we afford them? For a time we may be able to opt out of ITS built into cars until they are required in all cars by NHTSA. For the other ITS applications related to public infrastructure management, are we willing to pay for the required expertise in state and local agencies? If we are all clamouring for minimal government and yet want all these enahancements, the ONLY way to pay for some of them is to get the private sector to provide these services and recoup the costs directly from those who are willing to pay. If the public sector staffing is enhanced with skilled staff to take the job on – it is called a bloated bureaucracy by government minimalists – even though that path is often the least costly option. If a private firm is hired to do the job with some reasonable profit, others call that contractor mafiosi. Through many years of campaigns for smaller government by short-sighted politicians, the public sector is decimated in many parts of the nation to the point they have to hire a contractor to help hire or supervise another contractor. In many areas in the US it may be just too late to go the public sector route now. In Japan, Europe, Australia and many other parts of the world public sectors are better staffed for ITS.

  6. There certainly is some risk that the purveyors of ITS products will overstate the benefits. They are in business to make money, so let the buyer beware always applies. That said, the alternatives to the use of information technology usually are not cheap, obvious, and simple and sometimes simply are not available.

    Running transit service at frequent intervals is obvious and bumper-sticker simple; it absolutely is not cheap. The politics and citizen/motorist buy-in issues surrounding the question of transit priority at intersections could hardly be further from simple and the solutions are neither well known nor obvious. That is why they are not widely implemented. Writing transit schedules which provide for convenient transfers linking all service modes is a conventional goal of schedule writers everywhere. It’s just immensely more difficult to accomplish than to say. Fare and transfer policy simplification surely would make service more attractive. What the research says the impact on ridership might be is not known to me.

    ITS is like most tools, effective if used properly, ineffective when misapplied. Where information technology can remove uncertainty from the mind of the rider it can be a cost-effective alternative to running at impossibly expensive headways. Where it provides schedule performance data it can help to tune up schedules, inprove on-time performance, and improve the certainty of transfers.

  7. One benefit of ITS technology that officials may be understandably reluctant to mention (for fear of “big brother” metaphors, etc.) is that it opens up a wealth of readily available information about how people use transportation resources. If multiple forms of transportation are paid for using one system, individuals’ activities can be easily aggregated and analyzed to determine how much different services are being used and thus, hopefully, problems can be identified quicker and improvements can be made.

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