October 21, 2007 By Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor
As intelligent transportation systems (ITSs) evolve, the benefits include more than reductions in traffic congestion, fuel savings and fewer accidents. More efficient evacuations and emergency response are also counted among the benefits of using technology to manage traffic.
Though ITS plans are designed first for traffic management, the evolution includes the ability to plan for disaster scenarios and develop plans for evacuations based on real-time data and 21st-century tools, like evacuation software, rather than conjecture. New-age ITS tools allow officials to manage highways and roadways efficiently and mitigate ever-changing emergency situations in real time.
At the Controls
In the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, industry-standard tools for traffic management and cutting-edge software help traffic and emergency managers keep their eyes on the road. Closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras allow observation of the freeway, frontage roads and the arterial network to provide assessments on incidents. Dynamic message signs, located on freeways and arterials, provide a way for the traffic management centers to get information to the public about travel problems.
The region is using the National ITS Architecture as a model for developing its system. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, enacted in 1998, requires the development of systems that conform to the National ITS Architecture, which provides a common framework for planning and integrating ITSs. The standards enable transportation agencies to share and benefit from traffic management systems beyond their own, meaning traffic and emergency managers can gain a big picture view of transportation challenges and respond accordingly.
"With minimal investment, any agency can participate in a regional center-to-center communication system," said Rick Cortez, freeway management engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Dallas District. "This would allow a participating agency, at a minimum, to view the status of other agency equipment. For example, a city located in Dallas County would have the ability to view and get status from any field device TxDOT provides to the system."
According to Cortez, the TxDOT Dallas District monitors more than 100 miles of highway system within Dallas and the surrounding counties. "Incidents are detected by various means including visual verification via the CCTV cameras installed along the highway system and the use of the vehicle detection units installed along the same corridors."
TxDOT Dallas District manages a satellite traffic management center for Dallas and Tarrant counties until a permanent center can be built in the Dallas area. TxDOT's Fort Worth District manages the Western Subregion traffic center, including CCTV, lane control signals, dynamic message signs, ramp meters, mobility assistance patrols and traffic flow detectors. The traffic centers take the lead during local emergencies, directing strategy for evacuation and other traffic needs.
"In addition to the two TxDOT traffic management centers, the region has several city traffic management centers and two transit management centers throughout the region," said Sonya Jackson, principal transportation planner for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. "The traffic management centers provide an information hub around which effective system monitoring and incident detection occur."
New Model for Emergencies
The extent to which an agency or region can plan for and mitigate disaster situations will soon include some cutting-edge traffic simulation software being developed by a former University of Texas at Austin graduate student.
Yi-Chang Chiu, now an assistant professor in the University of Arizona Civil Engineering Department, has been working on the software since 1995, and it's beginning to surface as a tool for transportation and emergency management situations.
Chiu recently accepted a request from the Federal Highway Administration to use the software model to evaluate the transportation problem in Minneapolis presented by the recent bridge collapse. It will take two years to build the bridge, and in the meantime, traffic must be rerouted. Chiu's simulation software will be counted