Traffic congestion is a preeminent challenge for transportation planners across the country. US DOT estimates that traffic congestion costs America more than $87 billion in wasted fuel and productivity annually. The department calls it a “major threat to economic prosperity and our citizens’ quality of life.”
In Alaska’s largest city, rapid population growth has led to traffic congestion that will only grow in coming years. Anchorage has ballooned by more than 100,000 residents since 1980 and has maintained a 9% growth rate since 2000. Coupled with an anticipated doubling of freight volume by 2020, this growth will only increase the number of vehicles on the roads.
As transportation planners are well aware, they cannot eliminate traffic congestion. Instead, they must manage traffic flow. According to the US DOT, Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) technology is the ideal means of addressing this dilemma. ITS gives better information to planners and travelers to improve decision-making.
ITS systems combine communications technology, data, and transportation infrastructure to supply city planners and other decision-makers with information on how and when traffic moves. Integral to Transportation Asset Management, ITS research is helping Anchorage take a pro-active approach to congestion.
Leading this effort, AUTC researcher Jeff Miller, Associate Professor of Computer Systems Engineering at UAA, is managing multiple projects to help Anchorage implement ITS.
Miller’s work begins and ends with data. Several years ago, Anchorage planners needed more timely and accurate information about travel conditions. The city had minimal data collection and was limited in the variety of information it could obtain. The data offered only a snapshot view of traffic on arbitrary dates, instead of a more comprehensive, real-time picture that included days, weeks, and seasons.
Since then, Miller and his research team transformed the city’s data collection, analysis, and accessibility. They created a unique vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) system and installed tracking devices in 65 vehicles, enabling them to monitor a car’s speed, distance, and location at various intervals to deduce travel times on main roads during certain periods of the day. The team can now identify and predict major congestion areas, and display this information in real time on the Internet through a publically available interface called FreeSim (available at http://www.freewaysimulator.com).
Through this interface, destination travel time and average speed on a specific roadway will appear when a user puts the mouse over that roadway. Roads are color-coded to assist the user: red roads mean that traffic is moving at less than 25% of the speed limit; orange roads, 25–50% of the speed limit; yellow roads, 50–75% of the speed limit; and green roads, more than 75% of the speed limit. This is a first-of-its-kind technology for ADOT&PF.
Excited about this advancement, Miller’s team expanded the project’s data collection and transportation applications.
A project titled “Assessment of Traffic Congestion in Anchorage Utilizing Vehicle-Tracking Devices and Intelligent Transportation System Technology” began tracking new information on vehicles. The team utilized the On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) ports in tracked vehicles to gain access to more than 300 different types of data, such as revolutions per minute (RPM), fuel consumption, acceleration/deceleration rates, engine/cabin/outside temperature, and tire pressure and tire rotation. They want to scale and expand this data for public entities, researchers, planners, and the public.
How it works: The team’s V2I system receives data collected from vehicle OBD ports via text messages. These messages travel through a cellular telephone network to a server database. The team then analyzes the data and packages it for the public and other stakeholders online.
The applications are numerous. Based on the continuous data flow, Miller’s team learned about traffic patterns, traffic delays, seasonal traffic variations, how drivers circumvent traffic congestion, and whether route changes to avoid congestion actually save travel time. They also used this data to identify Anchorage’s major traffic chokepoints. The team studied traffic data between the time ranges of 7:00-9:00 am and 4:00-6:00 pm during weekdays. They compared average vehicle speeds with posted speed limits and discovered several frequently congested intersections.
East 36th Avenue and the Seward Highway, a major intersection next to the Old Seward highway, was one. They found another at the intersection of Lake Otis Parkway and East Tudor Road. A third appeared where Tudor crosses Boniface Parkway. Because of its proximity to major shopping areas, a 2.5 mile stretch of Diamond Boulevard between Minnesota Drive and the Seward Highway also suffered congestion during the holiday season.
Miller’s team is continuing to answer specific questions for municipal planners. Miller was recently invited to present his work to Anchorage’s Mayor, City Council, and other stakeholders discussing the city’s 2025 transportation plan at the quarterly meeting of the Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions (AMATS).
Miller is designing a protocol to help agencies quickly identify winter road hazards. By monitoring tire slippage rates, the V2I system can find slick spots and alert drivers through web interface or text messages. It can also notify public works facilities to dispatch snowplows or sand trucks at specific locations. Other travel safety issues also gain from Miller’s work. The Alaska State Troopers have recently been in contact with Miller to discuss potential applications of this data to aid in highway safety efforts.
Miller’s work with AUTC is quickly gaining attention among ITS organizations. In addition to having multiple papers in progress and submitted papers under review, Miller has numerous upcoming presentations including one at an intelligent vehicle symposium in June. In the fall, he will chair the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Intelligent Transportation Systems Conference in Anchorage, which will draw hundreds of professionals and researchers from around the world.
As Anchorage, AUTC, and the State of Alaska continue to expand their efforts with ITS, Miller will be an imperative research resource. And as Transportation Asset Management becomes an emerging priority for Alaska, the information and applications of this work will surely help the state’s busiest municipality keep pace with its growth.
This story originally appeared in AUTC’s recent quarterly newsletter, the full version of which is available online here.
Learn more about Jeff Miller’s ITS project online here.