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Public Roads - Fall 1996

Eight Steps Toward A 'Smarter' National Highway System

by Christine M. Johnson

Federal Highway Administrator Rodney E. Slater presented these eight steps toward a "smarter" National Highway System at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 8, 1996.

Imagine a transportation system linked by information and technology that makes travel quicker, safer, and easier. Imagine being able to plot your route before you leave your home or office and know exactly how long it will take you by car, subway, or bus. Imagine when transportation has moved fully into the information age. As we contemplate the implementation of the National Highway System (NHS) and our future transportation systems, we need to think about what kind of future society those systems will serve:

  • A society dominated by instant and personalized communications anywhere in the world.
  • A society dependent on information infrastructure as much as on physical infrastructure.
  • A society led by a generation raised on video games.
  • A society that will depend on a transportation system only marginally larger than the one we have today but crowded with 50 percent more users.
  • A society made up of more and more senior citizens, including ourselves, who will want to maintain active lifestyles and be able to get around in spite of increasing traffic.

The traffic management center in Houston.

Our work has already begun to squeeze more capacity out of our existing systems, raising the margins of safety and increasing the reliability and utility for all of us as we pursue our daily activities. We cannot solve our current and future problems solely by building more roads; we must increase the capacity of our existing systems by developing smarter highways.

This is where Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) come into play, and more specifically, this is the role of the Intelligent Transportation Infrastructure (ITI). ITI includes nine components of ITS: smart freeway management systems, smart transit management systems, smart traffic signal control systems, smart railroad grade-crossing safety systems, smart regional travel information centers, smart electronic fare-payment systems, smart incident management systems, smart emergency response systems, and smart electronic toll systems. NHS, which we begin implementing this year, will be -- must be -- an intelligent system. How else are we going to accommodate a 50 percent growth in demand while maintaining our current level of mobility and safety? How else will we respond to the needs of a new generation raised on television and the Internet -- who will demand instant and accurate information? And how else can we respond to a growing and aging population forced to cope with ever more challenging driving situations?

Our challenge is this: how do we start with NHS as it is today and begin taking tangible steps toward making it an intelligent system? Answering that question will be a test of our national will and a new form of federal leadership in which the federal role is not "mandator" and "bankroller" but "convener" and "facilitator" and "researcher" and "catalyst" and "exemplar."

Here are eight steps towards a "smarter" NHS:

Step 1: Research. We need to investigate today the things we want to implement 20 years from now.

Now, we are reaping the benefits of research begun 20 years ago. The ITS crown jewel is the Automated Highway System (AHS), which is now preparing for a proof-of-concept demonstration in 1997. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and its partners in ITS development are also pushing many other research frontiers:

  • We are developing a National Traffic Control Protocol that will allow -- for the first time -- traffic control devices of different types and different manufacturers to communicate with one another.
  • We are developing an approach to allow different geographic databases to use a common language for referencing locations.
  • We are completing laboratory development of a regional adaptive traffic control system that we will be field testing in 1997.
  • We are developing the ability to not only adapt to traffic, but to predict its behavior -- an essential ability if we expect to be as successful in managing our surface traffic as we are in managing our air traffic.

Now that's the highway research story, but we are also working on the vehicle side. About two-thirds of accidents are caused by human error, and we think we can improve those odds. Right now, we are engaged in an aggressive program with industry to explore and test crash-avoidance technology. Some of this technology has moved to the operational test stage.

We are also planning to use the telemetry that helped solve the Apollo 13 crisis to transmit truck safety problems and other vital information to fleet managers, improving safety for everyone.

Step 2: Operational Tests. Here again, we've accomplished much. FHWA has 70 operational tests under way. The most recent of these tests have focused on improving border crossings and developing intelligent cruise control. These tests have shown us which technologies are ready for deployment and which need further testing in the coming years. And we will continue testing crash-avoidance and traffic control technologies through 1997 and 1998.

Step 3: Architecture and Standards. Here, the United States is ahead of the rest of the world. After two long years of national dialogue and some 11,000 pages of technical detail, the outlines of a national architecture are emerging and will be finalized this year.

Step 4: Planning. The vision will never become a reality unless real people in real communities begin asking: "What should we do in our region?" Planning in nearly 75 metropolitan areas across the United States is already under way. A foundation has been laid; now the time has come to move into nationwide ITS deployment.

Step 5: A Shared National Goal for ITS Implementation. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena announced a national goal to "implement the intelligent transportation infrastructure across the United States within a decade."

Step 6: Setting an Example Through "ITS Model Deployments." As we ask the nation governors, mayors, county executives, police chiefs, transit managers and traffic engineers -- to embark on a path toward national deployment, we need to have examples of what it will look like and what benefits it can produce. This past summer, FHWA announced the "model deployment sites" where we can demonstrate to decision-makers across the nation the value of full integration of an ITI.

Step 7: Training and Technical Assistance. This is the proper role of federal leadership. Once we have a single, shared, national vision for an ITI, we must assume our proper role of providing training and guidance for the future.

For many, the future transportation world will be a new world of systems integration, communications technology, and systems design. The FHWA strategic plan specifically calls for us to make a major investment in this area. We will be working with many of you over the coming year in developing curriculum, training programs, and guidance documents for what will be one of the largest efforts to expand our technical capacity -- and that of our partners -- since the building of the interstate highways.

Step 8: Program Evaluation. Are we getting what we paid for? Every program has to ask tough questions about whether the investments live up to their promise. And this program is no different.

These eight steps will bring us closer to an intelligent NHS. Our challenge for the next five years is to work together -- in a true spirit of national partnership -- to turn our vision into reality.

Christine M. Johnson is the director of FHWA's Joint Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Program Office. Johnson works closely with the Federal Transit Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to provide direction and oversight for the U.S. Department of Transportation's intermodal ITS program. She came to FHWA from Parsons Brinckerhoff where she was vice president. She has been a member of the ITS America Board of Directors since 1991. Previously, she served as assistant commissioner of policy and planning for the New Jersey Department of Transportation and director of the Office of Transportation Planning for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. She holds a doctorate in public policy analysis and a master's degree in urban transportation planning.