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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Sept/Oct 1999

How Transportation Systems Talk to Each Other

by David Smallen

It was 1934, and some visionaries thought radio was the future of communications. Imagine people sitting in their living rooms and hearing live performances from the best entertainers in the business.

But radio broadcasters had a problem; there were no rules. When listeners turned on their radios, they didn't know what they were going to hear. New stations were starting up, and sometimes more than one station was broadcasting on the same frequency.

At that point, the federal government stepped in. The creation of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with the authority to regulate radio broadcasting led to radio becoming one of the most important communications technologies in America since that time.

Today, in a less dramatic fashion, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and other organizations are in the midst of a process that will ensure that the pre-1934 chaos of radio broadcasting is not repeated as state and local governments develop and deploy intelligent transportation systems (ITS).

FHWA, AASHTO, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America), and a number of other groups, known as standards development organizations (SDOs), have divvied up the action and are engaged in the painstaking, time-consuming process of creating standards for the deployment of ITS.

How Important Are Standards for Transportation?

AASHTO was founded in 1914 primarily to establish standards among the states that were in the formative stages of their road-building programs. The AASHTO "Green Book" is still the primary source of standards for road design.

New York City learned the importance of standards when it took over the operation of the privately owned subways in 1940. The Interboro Rapid Transit (IRT) System was built with a more narrow track gauge than the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) line and the city's own Independent (IND) line. In the past four decades, the operations of the BMT and IND lines have been merged; cars are used interchangeably; and routes have been coordinated. The IRT system still operates separately with the need for separate equipment orders.