Californian communicating road infrastructure to end traffic congestion

It turned out that a crane had toppled over sideways across all lanes of the freeway; no one was hurt but even hours after the accident, only the hard shoulder was open for cars to squeeze through.

Yet the map on an iPhone showed the traffic looking like a normal delay. There were no moveable signs warning drivers to leave the freeway at the only point where they still could have before getting stuck.

One reason for this was that much of the traffic was in a different California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) district than the site of the accident. Once across the invisible border between districts, and relatively close to the incident, motorists saw the first moveable sign on a Caltrans truck warning of the delay.

Streams of cars, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, slowly circumvented the blockage by looking for detours through a suburban beach community. The vehicles slowly followed each other through the dark, hilly residential streets and into cul-de-sacs, the whole parade turning around, backtracking to find an open path northward. The incident resulted in a more than two-hour delay.

Considering the irony of having spent a whole day hearing exuberant promises made for connectivity, this driver wanted to find out what some participants in the conference had to say about this vivid real-world experience.

Michael Cavaretta of Ford offered his take on the complexities of the scenario:“To solve this kind of problem is not the responsibility of any one party. There is no simple solution for dealing with this type of congestion in real time. For sure, you’d want to have as much data going against it as possible but what you really need is a cooperative infrastructure.”

Cavaretta explained there would have to be a new level of coordination between processes in the car, in the Cloud, on apps, in Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), and in traffic control. This is really where the infrastructure owners, local jurisdictions, OEMs, app makers and telecoms all need to work together. It’s a complicated technical problem, and an even more complicated organisational one.

In a discussion with Caltrans, it became clear the need for coordination is widely recognised as a priority. In fact, Caltrans is developing a ground breaking pilot project that addresses the specific challenges underscored by the toppled-crane delay. This project will integrate a number of previous fragmented networks into one unified system.

Caltrans’ pilot project has a Phase 1 deployment set to launch in early 2017. The project lead is Sam Esquenazi, District 7 office chief, office of district traffic manager. He says the collaborative project partners include nine cities as well as several public agencies and the Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology (PATH) at UC Berkeley.  

The pilot is the California Department of Transportation’s first lead Integrated Corridor Management (ICM) project and will benefit drivers and communities along a busy stretch of freeway at the northern edge of Los Angeles.

Owing to the large size of the project it will be divided into two phases. A key portion of the twenty-mile long segment of the I-210 pilot goes through Pasadena and cities to the east. This stretch of freeway is frequently clogged at rush hour with commuters travelling between Los Angeles and the region to the east called the Inland Empire. The project’s goal is to provide long-term relief to these commuters and improve traffic flow on the freeway as well as in the communities adjacent to the freeway.

When a traffic incident occurs within this stretch of corridor, and a response is warranted, drivers will be informed by newly installed changeable message signs. The project planning will also incorporate a systems engineering phase that will determine which new and innovative mobile technologies can be incorporated to get traffic information to all motorists in the area quickly and efficiently.

Roadway sensors will transmit data linked to ramp meters and to traffic signals on the arterial roads adjacent to the freeway. In the event of a freeway incident that causes a serious slowdown, cars will be able to disperse smoothly off the freeway and onto arterials. The message signs on the freeway will be coordinated with ones on city streets for drivers to know how to best continue to their destinations. Conversely, when a major accident occurs on an arterial, motorists will be diverted onto the freeway to help alleviate local traffic. Moreover, local bus and transit operators will be notified.

The spirit of the project is forging new coordination and cooperation to make the most of existing transportation infrastructure not currently fully utilised. The pilot will not focus on improving individual networks but rather bring together the independently operated traffic management assets of adjacent cities and combine them with Caltrans’ instrumented roadway sensors already in place.

Esquenazi said this synergy will make traffic information more accurate, and corridor traffic flow more responsive: “Our overall project goal is to maximise the multimodal efficiencies that can be realised by using the freeway, local arterials, and available bus, and rail systems all working together.”

Even more exciting, in future upgrades, the scope of the project will be expanded from incident management and improving freeway and arterial traffic flow to integrating parking management and demand management strategies to help influence traveller behaviour.

Once the pilot is deployed and undergoes a period of evaluation, the goal is for it to serve as a template to be used over the next ten years at another location in Los Angeles and elsewhere in California. These projects promise not only improvements to mobility but broad positive effects on sustainability, economic performance, and liveability – bringing to an end the sight of motorists sitting in traffic for hours on end. 

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