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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 61· No. 2 > ITS Is Already Paying Dividends

Sept/Oct 1997
Vol. 61· No. 2

ITS Is Already Paying Dividends

by Maria Koklanaris

It's Memorial Day weekend, 1997. A sea of cars streams out of New York City and heads south on the always-congested I-95 corridor. In state after state, traffic slams to a dead halt as drivers approach tollbooths. Sometimes the wait to get through the tollbooth can be a half-hour long. Sometimes it's longer.

It doesn't have to be this way.

For some fortunate commuters around the nation, inconveniences such as long toll lines are becoming a thing of the past. These drivers live and work in areas served by intelligent transportation systems (ITS), a series of projects designed to make getting from point A to point B as easy, safe, and cost-effective as possible.

ITS Saved Oklahoma $160,00. Photo of a toll plaza belowOklahoma City saved $160,000 per year per toll booth when booths were equipped with electronic debit systems. Driver with prepaid electronic toll transponders affixed to their cars also save time by not having to stop at toll booths.

The pre-paid toll pass is an example. In many cities around the nation, drivers may purchase cards that allow them to get through tollbooths without stopping. They need only slow down while a monitor reads the pass, which is usually placed in their car windshield. Then they can get back on their way. The result is less aggravation and more time saved for drivers. And more cars per hour move through the tollbooth.

On New York's Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River, for example, 350 to 400 vehicles per hour get through the lanes where tolls are collected manually. But up to 1,000 vehicles per hour move through the electronic toll lanes, according to the Spring 1997 issue of ITS Quarterly.

"We have an ability to make better use of the infrastructure that we have," said Christine Johnson, director of the ITS Joint Program Office at the Federal Highway Administration headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Electronic toll collection is an ITS program the average driver can easily spot and understand. But it's only one small part of the huge system that makes up ITS. This network includes:

  • Traffic and transit management and control.
  • Vehicle tracking, including improved emergency response to drivers in distress.
  • Government transactions, such as toll collection and truck regulation.
  • Vehicle operations, including crash avoidance and information for travelers.

And while driver convenience and efficiency of infrastructure are key benefits, they are perhaps not the most important benefits of ITS, Johnson said. The most important benefits are safety and reduced cost.

"ITS saves lives," she said.

In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that if all vehicles were equipped with just three of the primary ITS crash-avoidance mechanisms, there would be a 17-percent reduction in annual crashes. That would mean 1.2 million fewer accidents, more than 4,900 lives saved, and $26 billion saved.

Johnson also maintains that with ITS, while "we still have to build (more roads), we don't have to build as much." One study estimated that for the same level of new capacity, an ITS strategy coupled with modest new building would save 35 percent over a traditional build approach. Another national study found an 8-to-1 benefit cost ratio for ITS in the 75 largest metropolitan areas.

Savings in transit systems over the next decade would also be in the tens of billions of dollars, according to an estimate by the ITS joint program office. With ITS, future transit systems could provide enhanced and more reliable service to riders, using fewer vehicles and operators. Over 10 years, savings in transit costs would total between $3.8 billion and $7.4 billion, while savings in road construction costs would total about $15 billion.

"We're not talking about taking money away from roads and putting it into ITS," said Mel Cheslow, senior ITS engineer for D.C.-based Mitretek, which is under contract to the Federal Highway Administration. "We would argue that the most efficient way to use money is putting in highways and putting in ITS on top of them."

How would all this happen? Johnson and Joe Peters, who oversees benefits studies and evaluations for the ITS joint program office, said these large-scale benefits can be achieved when ITS is in place -- with the different types of ITS integrated -- across the country in both rural and urban areas. Some form of ITS is now in place in each of the 75 most populous metropolitan areas in the nation, but services must be much more widespread and integrated to see the fullest large-scale benefits, they said.

"There's very little rocket science involved in ITS," Peters said. "Getting the state of the practice at the same level as the state of the art" is what still must be done, he said.

Still, benefits have been realized on a smaller scale in many areas of the country. Freeway management system projects, for example, have improved conditions in areas such as Seattle, Detroit, and Minneapolis. In all three areas, studies have shown that while traffic was consistently increasing, implementation of a freeway management system allowed speeds to remain steady or increase. Meanwhile, accident rates fell.

ITS has also had a positive effect on the environment. Because delays and travel time were decreased, car emissions also went down.

It may not have been called ITS in 1966, but the city of Wichita Falls, Texas, was using a computerized traffic signal system that certainly qualifies as an ITS. In those early years, the city reported a 16-percent reduction in stops, a 31-percent reduction in vehicle delay, an 8.5-percent reduction in accidents, and a 50- percent increase in speed.

Years later, Toronto in Canada reported similar success with its traffic signal system, called SCOOT. The 1995 study reported an 8-percent decrease in travel time, a 22-percent decrease in vehicle stops, a 17-percent decrease in vehicle delay, a 6-percent decrease in fuel consumption, a 5-percent decrease in carbon monoxide, and a 4-percent decrease in hydrocarbons.

Many cities have had success with traveler information programs. These range from information kiosks where motorists can pick up maps and schedules to call-in projects where they can find out about accidents and delays and to Internet sites where they can access real-time maps showing congestion on major arteries. Studies show that commuters use this information. Up to 40 percent of travelers changed their plans upon learning of problems on their regular routes, according to 1993 surveys in Boston and Seattle.

ITS has also produced tangible benefits for transit systems. Systems that allow authorities to pinpoint the location of buses on computerized maps have created more efficient fleets. In Baltimore, for example, a November 1995 study reported a 23-percent improvement in on-time buses equipped with the form of ITS known as automatic vehicle location.

A more efficient fleet may also create a need for fewer buses. A 1995 study reported that automatic vehicle location systems made the Kansas City, Mo., fleet efficient enough that seven fewer buses were needed. The city's transit authority saved $500,000.

Successes such as these have led the ITS joint program office to focus more strongly on integrating ITS to realize maximum benefits.

"Many ITS elements are complementary," said Don Roberts, ITS Project Team manager for Mitretek. "The challenge for the future is to focus on integrated ITS benefits."

In 1996, the joint program office selected four locations around the country to serve as models of ITS application and integration. The four models are San Antonio, Phoenix, Seattle, and metropolitan New York City.

"All four sites were picked because of ( their prior) significant investment in ITS," Roberts said. "They had already done things. We expect significant additional benefits from integration."

Photo of an ambulance on a highwayDoctors at hospitals are able to view patients inside EMS units via video-teleconferencing as part of the TransGuide LifeLink program in San Antonio.

San Antonio is operating an advanced traffic management system called TransGuide. The first phase of TransGuide -- 42 kilometers of highway in a proposed system of 307 kilometers -- went online two years ago at a cost of about $33 million. TransGuide, considered the most sophisticated traffic management system in the country, uses a digital communications network to warn drivers about conditions ahead of them and to transmit information about accidents and other incidents to police and rescue workers as quickly as possible. The network includes changeable message signs, lane-control signals, loop detectors, and surveillance cameras.

Last year, the Texas Transportation Institute and the Texas Department of Transportation teamed up to evaluate the accident rate and response time before TransGuide and after TransGuide. The transportation officials compared the time periods from Aug. 1 to Dec. 31 in 1992, 1993, and 1994 -- when TransGuide was not online -- with the time period from Aug. 1 to Dec. 31, 1995, the first five months of TransGuide deployment. They found that accidents decreased 15 percent, and the response time for major and minor traffic incidents decreased by an average of 20 percent, according to ITS Quarterly, Spring 1997. ITS Quarterly further reports that the savings associated with these reductions amounts to $4.95 million and would total $67 million over 20 years.

The transportation officials studying the effectiveness of TransGuide also surveyed drivers and found that most motorists felt more confident on the road, believed they had saved time, and found traffic signs easier to understand since TransGuide went online, according to ITS Quarterly.

Peters said future plans for TransGuide include providing emergency vehicles with surveillance cameras showing actual incidents. This can save rescue workers valuable time because "they will be able to see what they are coming to" and to evaluate the scene before arrival.

In Phoenix, ITS is reducing the wait for passengers to board buses with a "smart farebox." "You take your MasterCard and swipe it to get on a bus," Peters said. The farebox also accepts Visa and a special card called the BusCard Plus, which is available to bus-riding employees through their companies. The farebox automatically adjusts for rate increases and fare changes, and it tells commuters if their card has become invalid.

Peters said a next step for ITS in the Phoenix area will be multijurisdictional coordination of traffic signals. This would mean that traffic signals across the metropolitan area would be timed to change together, making it possible for many commuters to leave the city and reach their homes in the suburbs without hitting a red light.

Seattle and the Puget Sound area, another ITS model site, are testing devices that let travelers who run into trouble on the road send for help immediately. Peters said these devices, called MAYDAY, are particularly needed in rural areas where drivers may be many kilometers from the nearest telephone.

The MAYDAY devices -- a pager and a cellular phone -- each have buttons a motorist can push to declare an emergency, ask for medical or mechanical assistance, or ask for directions. In the case of motorists who don't know where they are, the devices also transmit 9-1-1 signals to a dispatch center where the location of the motorist is shown on an electronic map.

Peters said Seattle users of the World Wide Web can plan their routes to work before they leave home, saving valuable time. Users can pull up a real-time display showing which freeways are most congested.

The city is also developing for the future an "ideal in-vehicle navigation system," Peters said. This system, installed in a motorist's vehicle, "knows where the congestion is and can route you around it."

Metropolitan New York City is the fourth model ITS site. The metro area includes parts of three states: New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

The three states have formed an agency called TransCom, which provides communications about highway incidents. Before TransCom, Peters said, commuters from one state might have information about accidents or roadwork near their homes but could be in for unpleasant surprises as soon as they crossed into a new jurisdiction. Now, he said, "They have surveillance of the freeways across state lines."

U.S. athletes were not the only shining stars at the 1996 Olympic Games, as far as transportation experts are concerned. The Traveler Information Showcase in Atlanta during the Olympics won a gold medal of its own.

The Department of Transportation worked with the state of Georgia, the city of Atlanta, the city's transit authority and its airport, the Olympic Games committee, five nearby counties, and nearly two dozen private companies to integrate five ITS projects. During the Olympics, 17.8 million spectators were transported by bus and rail, and 10,700 athletes were transported on 2,000 buses.

The Atlanta program tracked and coordinated freeway, side street, and transit operations; implemented high-occupancy vehicle lanes; offered travelers information on cable television, in rented cars and hotels, and on the Internet; and set up 130 information kiosks giving visitors data on everything from real-time traffic conditions to rideshare information and the weather.

A high level of integrated ITS continues in Atlanta. The city operates a $140 million facility, known as the Atlanta Regional Transportation Management Center, which provides surveillance and communications through sensors, video, and fiber-optic lines on all interstate highways within the perimeter of I-285. The center shares and receives information from six surrounding counties, the city's transit authority, a public cellular phone-in line, and a number of airborne and ground-based traffic spotters.

"The Olympics offered the chance to really show what can be achieved with ITS," said Johnson. "The Olympics simulated what every major city is going to face in the next 10 to 20 years -- on a daily basis. Our experience in Atlanta showed what could be accomplished by using ITS and with minimal changes to the infrastructure. More importantly, it demonstrated that an integrated intelligent transportation infrastructure is the enabling infrastructure for the management of operations on an intermodal basis."

ITS enhances the ability to move people and vehicles in less time, with less aggravation, and for less money. Integration of ITS is expected to significantly compound the benefits of ITS, the most important of which are safety and reduced cost to the taxpayers.

Maria Koklanaris is a freelance writer. She has been a working journalist since her graduation from The Pennsylvania State University in 1986. She has been employed by The Hamptons Magazine on Long Island, N.Y.; The Connection Newspaper Group in Fairfax County, Va.; The Washington Post; the Associated Press wire service; and The Washington Times.

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