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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 59· No. 3 > Demonstration Project 93 - Making the Most of Today's Technology

Winter 1996
Vol. 59· No. 3

Demonstration Project 93 - Making the Most of Today's Technology

by John McCracken

We've all had the experience. You drive into a town trying to get from one end to the other, only to find yourself in a snarl of congestion waiting for a traffic light. It changes. Eureka! Off you go. But wait. Just as you start to make a little progress, Bingo, another red light, then another. By the time you get across town, your temperature is up, your gas gauge is down, and you find it hard to believe that in an age of revolutionary technology, someone can't do something to reduce congestion and improve traffic flow.

The fact is, they have. It's Demonstration Project 93 of the Office of Technology Applications (OTA) in the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). This project encompasses the joint efforts of 25 U.S. and foreign manufacturers who have formed partnerships with the FHWA to promote and demonstrate the latest available technology to state and local jurisdictions. Industry has supplied the technology (at no cost to the government), and the government has supplied the necessary labor and resources to mobilize and demonstrate the technology.

This unique technology transfer project provides the information, motivation, and tools that, when properly applied, can achieve immediate reduction in congestion, particularly at urban intersections. In addition, the project has created an awareness among top administrators and managers of both the significant role played by traffic control systems in efficient traffic management programs and the need to allocate adequate resources to operate and maintain these systems.

FHWA Advance Traffic Control Technologies mobile exhibit and classroom.

The centerpiece of the project is a mobile exhibit and classroom a custom-built, 14.6-m-long tractor/trailer combination that is expandable to a 4.9-m width. The project is believed to be the most extensive mobile demonstration of intersection control technology ever assembled.

The two-day presentation and its optional executive summary for top managers promote the adoption and implementation of technology through hands-on experience with the equipment. The exhibits are fully operational and simulate actual traffic control conditions.

Experiences with similar hands-on demonstrations have proven that participants retain a high percentage of information that is presented through this interactive teaching technique. The technique is based on an old Chinese proverb: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." The most effective technology transfer process physically takes the technology to the users and allows plenty of time for demonstrations, all in the absence of vendors.

The expandable trailer,and laboratory brings the latest traffic controls technologies to the users.The mobility of the demonstration project is also an important feature because it permits training to reach those individuals who need it most: those who are usually not permitted to travel out-of -state to visit vendors or attend national conventions where technology is exhibited and demonstrated. There is a pressing need for traffic control engineers to track, compare, and evaluate these products because they are faced with an often confusing array of rapidly changing electronic equipment and computer software products developed by the traffic control industry.

The workshop presentation and hands-on demonstrations allow participants to operate and evaluate most of the leading electronic traffic control technology on the U.S. market today. Examples include new advancements in traffic signal controllers, intelligent vehicle detectors, advanced communication systems, high-resolution computer graphics, distributed and hybrid signal systems, and digital signal processing. Most operational products, regardless of their origin and if actively marketed in the U.S., are eligible for inclusion in the project.

There is no question of the timeliness of Demonstration Project 93. Urban traffic congestion is recognized as one of the most urgent transportation problems facing the nation today. However, until sophisticated, long-term, congestion management solutions are fully developed and deployed, these changes must be accomplished by using and maintaining current state-of-the-art traffic signal equipment and software technology.

The benefits of basic improvement programs for signalized intersections are rarely documented and frequently taken for granted although "before" and "after" studies have shown that the benefits of basic signal improvements can far exceed the cost of implementation. In fact, they usually pay for themselves within two or three years. Among the most recognizable benefits of signal improvements are:

  • Reduced congestion.
  • Higher operating speeds.
  • Reduced fuel consumption.
  • Reduced air pollutants.
  • Reduced accidents.
  • Reduced noise.

Just How Bad Is It?

Predictions indicate that traffic and its negative effects will continue to increase, and by the year 2005, vehicle emissions and congestion levels will increase by 200 percent or more unless significant improvements are made now. Consider these facts:

1. Two-thirds of all urban vehicle-miles of travel in the U.S. occur on roads controlled by more than 240,000 traffic control devices; yet 60 percent, or 144,000, of these need improvements such as signal retiming optimization and equipment upgrading.

2. One-fifth of all U.S. fuel is consumed in urban areas on streets controlled by traffic signals.

3. Approximately 38 percent of all U.S. oil consumption is due to the traffic along our highways and urban streets.

4. On a national average, poor signal timing causes up to 15 percent excess vehicle delay, 16 percent excess vehicle stops, 7 percent excess travel time, and 9 percent excess fuel consumption.

5. Fifteen to 20 gallons of fuel can be saved for each dollar spent on retiming traffic signals.

It Can Get A Lot Better

Studies by FHWA have demonstrated that signal retiming and equipment upgrades are ranked among the most cost-effective improvements for arterial and signalized intersections. Today, many states and cities in the U.S. are experiencing similar findings with signal retiming and optimization projects.

For example, in 1990 the Commonwealth of Virginia launched a statewide signal timing optimization program to improve overall arterial and intersection operations. Results reported for the Northern Virginia District, which coordinated and optimized 321 intersections, revealed a total benefit including reductions in vehicle stops, travel time, and fuel consumption of $72 million and a benefit-to-cost ratio of 200 to 1. Specifically, the reductions were: total vehicle delay (25 percent), vehicle stops (26 percent), travel time (10 percent), and fuel consumption (4 percent).

A recent signal retiming project in the city of Portland, OR, consisting of only 14 intersections, yielded a 2 percent reduction in fuel consumption that resulted in an astounding reduction of 39 tons of carbon monoxide in one year. Similar studies performed in Los Angeles involving 800 intersections also revealed substantial savings: 50,000 hours per day of travel time, 8 million vehicle stops per day, a 26 percent reduction in emissions, and a 13 percent reduction in fuel consumption.

Users get hands-on experience in the use of traffic control hardware and software.The California Fuel Efficient Traffic Signal Management Program (FETSIM) results reported for the 1983-1994 period also highlighted dramatic improvements from signal retiming and signal equipment upgrades. Total benefits of $274.0 million over 11 years were reported, and the total annual cost of the project of $13.4 million was recovered in just three months.

These studies vividly point out that signal timing optimization and hardware upgrades can produce significant improvements, and that the cost to make these improvements can be quickly recouped when incremental benefits are projected over time.

Although it is possible to track savings resulting from equipment upgrades and signal optimization, the tangible benefits of Demonstration Project 93 are more difficult to measure. FHWA has received many comments from participants expressing a genuine appreciation for this project. Also, many participants say they like the unbiased nature of the presentation and the variety of current, state-of-the-art technology that is presented.

From the beginning of the project in January 1993 to July 1995, there were 48 demonstrations presented to audiences representing 40 states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. More than 1,500 traffic professionals and managers have participated in this project, and there will be more soon because 22 additional presentations are planned for 1995.

The cost of developing, mobilizing, and delivering this project will be about $1.9 Million when the project concludes in 1996, but the cost benefit to state and local governments and to the motorist who can quickly drive across town will be astounding.

John McCracken from the Office of Technology Applications is the manager of Demonstration Project 93.

The mission of the Office of Technology Applications (OTA) of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is to ensure the timely identification and assessment of innovative research results, technology, and products and the application of those that are found to be of potential benefit to the highway community.

FHWA is working on many programs in partnership with public and private organizations to deal with traffic congestion issues. OTA develops handbooks, training courses, test and evaluation projects, and demonstration projects to facilitate technology transfer to its customers state and local governments.

OTA began Demonstration Project 93 to use an array of advanced traffic control technologies that are readily available but which are greatly under used by highway agencies. Demonstration Project 93 focusses on urban intersections, not freeways, and it concentrates on operational rather than experimental technology. To be included, the technology must not be widely used, and it must be state-of-the-art.

The objectives of this project are:

  • Promote "concepts" of current technology, hardware and software, leading to adoption and installation of more reliable and powerful traffic control systems.
  • Conduct full-day, hands-on demonstrations with instructions on how to operate equipment and software.
  • Raise the level of awareness of top management of the benefits, impacts, and resources associated with implementing advanced technology.

Contact the FHWA Division Office in your state about the schedule for presentations of Demonstration Project 93 in your area.

More information about Demonstration Project 93 can be found at the Federal Highway Administration's Technology Applications Web site.

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