Thursday, October 15, 2009

How high-tech tools can improve commutes

By guest blogger Noel Brady

George Jetson would be jealous. Sure, he flew to work in a domed commuter pod, but could his skyway tell him where the congestion was before he was stuck in it? I think not. But that’s exactly what we’re working on for some of the busiest highways in the Seattle area.

Have you ever found yourself sitting in traffic wondering, “Where IS this traffic coming from? A wreck? Obama’s motorcade?” You don’t know whether it will clear up around the next bend or if there’s a mass evacuation you didn’t hear about.

Well, your commute is going to get a lot less mysterious with automatic, real-time traffic information and a congestion-alert system that brings you the 411 as fast as backups can start to form miles up the road. We’re calling it Smarter Highways.

Starting with I-5 and SR 520 in summer 2010 and then I-90 by spring 2011, new signs will warn drivers of slow traffic ahead to reduce the rear-enders that cause more than a quarter of the congestion on our busiest highways. The system will deliver the info automatically by calculating traffic data from sensors embedded in the pavement. The information will reach drivers faster than ever to make it easier to switch lanes or pick another route before getting caught in the bumper-to-bumper mess.

Soon we’ll begin installing 15 new sign bridges, spaced a half-mile apart, over the northbound lanes of I-5 from Boeing Access Road to I-90. They’ll support variable speed-limit and lane-status (arrows and Xs) signs over each lane and one large electronic message board at each location. So, what will this look like?

Sign progression of Smarter Highways:

Mile 1: When traffic flows freely, the variable speed limit signs are black.

Mile 1.5: Seconds after a collision occurs three miles up the highway, the speed limit drops and a sign warns drivers of backups ahead.

Mile 2: As vehicles approach the collision area, the speed drops again.

Mile 2.5: A mile from the trouble spot speed limit signs flash arrows intermittently. Green arrows instruct drivers to proceed in the their lane, and yellow arrows mean exit the lane as soon as safely possible, because the lane is closed or blocked ahead.

Mile 3: At the site of the collision, red X’s indicate which lanes are blocked.

Want to learn more? Check our information about  I-5  and SR 520/I-90 Active Traffic Management on our website. You can also download our Building Smarter Highways folio (pdf 2mb) and view our Building Smarter Highways video.

So hold on to your space helmet, Elroy! It’s going to be a smooth ride.


Anonymous said...

Active Traffic Management couldn't have come sooner to this side of the Atlantic. Bravo to WSDOT for focusing on management instead of constant expansion!

Anonymous said...

What a joke and a waste of money.

Why not focus on real problems, 405 Bellevue to Tukwilla, 520 bridge, the viaduct?

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, 'smarter highways' and ideas like the 'express tolls' are a waste of money, time, and effort. We need real solutions that increase flow, volume, and save time each of us time - now and in the future. Using some creativity and foresight, we could very well design a solution that would last generations instead of piddling around with a project that we aren't even sure will make a difference today. With creativity, we can make use of the land we have to improve roads and add lanes - and with foresight,we can create something once that will last. How much money will we waste on these projects that won't ever add up to a great infrastructure improvement? However, if we decided what a 'great' infrastructure improvement was and then broke it up into pieces... we would at least someday have something we could be proud of. A city slowly dies when people waste their time away from productive activities with their family and job and instead, spend it on the road away from their family and jobs increasing their stress levels. and breathing in smog. How much less pollution would we have if people halved their commutes? How much time would that save us, if we multiplied it for every person, every day, every year, for the next 30 years? How much less waste would we have if we didn't have to tear up our roads every few years because we didn't do it right the first time? Instead of adding only one lane in each direction on the 520, couldn't you at least have one more? If it would cause 'too much congestion on the I-5' then put some planters in the extra lane until it didn't. We seem to focus so well on saving on the little things, like changing our bulbs to CFLs, all the while missing out on opportunities to save big.

Anonymous said...

This is a sorely needed application. Would be more convincing if some estimates of travel time savings and speed improvements or real time results data from elsewhere were shown. The slide show focuses on accidents, which are only one part of the congestion problem. Also, since there are other peak travel breakdown events such as recreational travel peaks that impact the travel experience as well, it seems a new slogan is in order "How high-tech tools can reduce your travel delay".

Anonymous said...

What a waste!!! Does it save lives? Does it speed commerce? Let's ax this program and put our $ into something that matters!!!

Anonymous said...

It might be a godo idea, but putting up new "infrastructure" (poles and pylons) that just have to be taken down when the SR-520 works really gets going, does not really seem like such a smart move.

Anonymous said...

405(N)->520(E) and 520(W) after the 148th street onramp are two huge issues that this will not solve (unless you're lucky enough to get on 520(W) before the 148th street exit AND one of these signs happens to be there AND it lets you know that 520(W) is clogged prior to the next exit). These are just two examples I'm intimately familiar with, but I've seen these problems in other sections of highway around the region.

The real issue in these cases has to do with how we manage onramps, offramps, and merging. Cases in point -- 405(N) has two onramps and up to three lanes of enter/exit merging. It's a weaving nightmare. The 520(W)->405(S) exit has a tight, slow-speed turn that backs up easily, throwing a monkey wrench into the 520(W)->405(N) lane -- the line of cars waiting for 405(S) preventing people being able to quickly get out of the 405(N) lane and onto 520(W), and also preventing people in any of the left-most lanes getting onto 405(N) (more prominent when the right lane has backed all the way up to the carpool lane). If you're lucky and patient enough to get onto 405(S) from 520(W) on a bad day, then you have to accelerate from 30MPH or slower up to 60MPH and merge into full-speed, full-density traffic in the course of 600-700 FEET. Many people have difficulty being lead-footed in this stretch, so the right-most lane on 405(S) will tend to slow down as a side-effect if 520(W) gets too badly congested on that offramp.

The result of these poorly-designed exits and entrances is increased weaving, decreased speed, and decreased safety. More exits, better-spaced on/offramps, longer on/offramps, and NOT having onramps that feed directly into offramps will improve flow and reduce accidents much better than an electronic system for introducing slower speeds and more merging.

FYI -- I'm a born and raised Seattleite, and I know we can't merge worth a darn, just like we can't drive in the snow for crap. Ask anybody from almost any other state (or Spokane, in case of snow). How anybody planning the roads wouldn't know this, and would try to solve our problems by introducing more merging, I have no idea. We'll just get a bunch of jerks cruising in the blocked lane and merging last-second, like we do today when there are construction signs saying "merge left/right." The backup will happen all the same.

Anonymous said...

I fear that to many of the People below that have negative comments see that that it is important to Transport Cars. Unfortunately it is not cars that are the focus it is people that are the focus.
By using ATM it will force drivers (people) to better think about there options before they get there at a fraction of the cost of Crashes and Additional Lanes.
One of the comments Quote"How much less pollution would we have if people halved their commutes? How much time would that save us, if we multiplied it for every person, every day, every year, for the next 30 years? How much less waste would we have if we didn't have to tear up our roads every few years because we didn't do it right the first time?
First of all this is propionate for more lanes. and second you will never "halve" a commute by adding more lanes. Sorry just wont happen.
By Deciding on the correct route, Yes then you can half your commute. Yes by Using Mass Transit you can half your commute. Not to mention work well you are being transported "to work."
People are the answer to this equation People get to decide there own route.

Anonymous said...

In a way I feel this is all too little, too late. HOT lanes should already be expanded in all HOV lanes now.

ATM was proven effective on the old I-90 bridge when we had variable lanes then based on time of day. Now it's like we're reinvestigating OLD ideas instead of actively coming up with real solutions.

My biggest fear is that ATM coming now will only INCREASE accidents in congested areas where active accidents are happening because people won't follow the guidlines of the "yellow X's" and will work to "speed ahead" with as much opportunity they can with the now vacated lanes.

You want real results? Install traffic cameras to catch violators of the HOT lanes crossing the double white lines. Daily I see at least 5-10 people violate the law, yet never do I see ANYONE enforce those laws.

Install the HOT lanes all the way from 410 to 167, onto 405 from I5 to I5 and get HOT lanes on 90/520 and I5 itself.

Stop pandering around on pet projects and make a REAL difference.

Anonymous said...

Right. So this will let us raise the speed limit during off hours to 70-75 right? Or even better - give a higher speed limit to the left most lane and the lowest to the rightmost lane. Maybe then the people who go noticeably below the speed limit will stick to the right where they should be. The simplest way to improve the traffic flow in this city would be driver re-education. Either that or more cameras. Not to catch the random speeder that is not really hurting anyone. To catch the people who really cause accidents - the ones who stop in middle lane so they don't miss their exit, cut across two or three lanes with no turn signal, high speed weaving, driving too slow in the passing lane, pacing with cars in the adjacent lane, slowing down for their cell phone and not moving over to the right lane, etc.

Allen said...

This technology is a great addition to our transportation infrastructure and when operated flawlessly and obeyed by users WILL improve the traffic issues we face on our roadways. However, the problem we will encounter, as much as we do today, is the users of the roadways choose to disregard traffic management systems already in place and do not give their full attention to operating the vehicle. If the ATM system on Washington highways displays a merge arrow will people merge immediately or will they wait until the last second and merge into another vehicle? If the speed limit changes will drivers obey the reduced speed or continue at their current rate? Our roadways are designed to move people efficiently and safely; however, the attitudes, awareness and actions of the drivers ultimately determine the efficiency and safety of our traffic movement. To effectively mitigate the issues we face on our congested roadways we need two things. First, useful and efficient tools and infrastructure such as the ATM system and safe roadways. Second, obedient drivers that adhere to posted signage, follow safe driving habits, and understand they are not the only person on the road. This is a coupled relationship and without one the other doesn't work. The Active Traffic Management system is a great tool that when obeyed will reduce congestion and improve efficiency; however, until drivers change their habits we will never truly experience the full potential and benefits of such technology.


Dave said...

What is the cost of this? I have looked and cannot find it?

Allen said...

The SR 520 and I-90 are federally funded by grants totaling $42 million.

Eric said...

Please ensure that these signs have better strobe rates than the variable speed signs on I-90 going into Seattle. The lower strobe rates are irritating, distracting, and dangerous.

james said...

ok i'll ask, whats the lil icon showing on the screens now? kinda looks like a turtle or a little person, heck it kinda even looks like a middle finger.

Patty/WSDOT said...

@James. The little icons displaying on the new electronic signs spanning northbound I-5 in south Seattle are test messages. Our engineers are testing the connectivity between these signs and the traffic management center in Shoreline. The signs are displaying asterisks and you may see them move around or change color. We have several phases of testing to complete before turning on the new system later this summer.

Anonymous said...

I don't see how signs helping people pick the best lanes will help. People will always drive in the open/fastest moving lane.

Patty/WSDOT said...

The signs will help reduce congestion in a couple of ways. Many collisions are due to congestion - sometimes drivers get caught off-gaurd as they approach a slowdown and hit the brakes causing a chain reaction. Advance notice of the slowdown will prevent that panic breaking.

Many drivers will move over earlier if they know the lane ahead is closed. This clears a path for emergency responders so they can get to the incident quickly and safely.

These signs are regulatory - they can be enforced.

David said...

The variable speed signs already on I-90 are a huge joke. About every other morning they're flashing 45 on the east channel bridge and people are regularly speeding by at the usual 70.

Let's apply our money to something that actually works and is meaningful. Like capacity. Or perhaps remedial merging class for Seattle drivers who like to create a hazard by merging at 40 mph instead of prevailing highway speed.

Anonymous said...

I think that's great for the future. Now, when are you going to fix the roads so I don't feel like I'm on a roller coaster?

Anonymous said...

This is a total waste of money, effort and resources. As a daily I-90 driver I can attest that the signs are totally ignored by drivers. If the state wants to increase flow I have an idea: INCREASE speed limits to get cars off the road faster. If I can drive faster I'll be off the road faster. Makes perfect sense.

Commuter said...

I find "Smart" to be a trendy term, and frankly, I am already sick of it. Smart highways, Smart Urban Planning, Smart Growth.

I'm sorry folks, "Smart" seems to be the new word for manipulation of data, and presentation, but not for real solutions.

Let's not get on this bandwagon. I see these signs as only semi-useful. The fact is, commerce is leaving the Seattle-Metro area, both due to the tax structures and the lack of appropriate infrastructures that move traffic.

We have lost, and are losing, too many labor intensive jobs because manufacturing companies can no longer afford to do business in King County. That's a major problem for Washington State, and the DOT needs to tell Gregoire and the Transportation Gurus to quit de-mobilizing our County.

Heather/WSDOT said...

To add a quick side note, as part of this project, WSDOT constructed more than 40 sign bridges to hold the high-tech signs. A local company, Rainier Welding in Redmond, manufactured all of these sign bridges using steel from Alaska and Oregon. This was a very welcomed contract for a family run business employing 24 welder, fitters and laborers.

Anonymous said...

This will not move traffic more efficiently. Electronic signs over a highway just slow down traffic as people slow down so they can read the sign. This is nothing but another driver distractor. Why do we need a sign every half mile to tell us how fast to go when you can only go as fast as the car in front of you? With one sign for each lane (up to 5 or 6), how fast can the mind process that information while moving at 60 to 100 feet a second? How much distance is traveled while looking up to identify, process, and evaluate the information presented while not keeping eyes on the road? I suspect more traffic accidents will be attributed to people looking at the signs and not looking at the road. How many people will make unnecessary lane changes because the sign over in the next lane indicates a faster speed? The list all things wrong with this is long... This is not good.

Anonymous said...

QUOTE: "The real issue in these cases has to do with how we manage onramps, offramps, and merging. Cases in point"

I absolutely must agree with this statement. The WA state highway system and its insanely dangerous on/off ramp clogging is probably the worst in the entire USA. In many areas of Seattle/Bellevue you have off-ramps that merge directly into on-ramps, while people are forced to merge 3 lanes to get out of the mess. At the same time, during rush hours, you have people merging over 4 lanes of traffic at the last minute to jam themselves on to an off-ramp.

The So. CA State highway system is by far the most congested system in the world, yet it's off/on-ramps are no where as dangerous as WA State's.

I often laugh when I think of who did the master planning for Bellevue and Seattle highway systems. "This has to have been design by monkeys"...

Anonymous said...

What germans have for over 40 years is now "high tech" in the US?

Greetings from Germany, the end of speed limit :)

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