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Public Roads - Spring 1997

Internet Watch

Exploring Usenet and Other Transportation-Related Discussion Groups

by Dick Stirba

"Internet Watch," a new, regular feature of Public Roads, tracks new and interesting developments in transportation resources on the Internet.

Exploring Usenet and Other Transportation-Related Discussion Groups

The transportation research community today boasts several dozen web sites, but few with the level of interaction called for by the rapid pace of technological development and application.

Usenet newsgroups, discussion groups, and e-mail groups each belong to a family of interactive, electronic assemblies of people with like interests. These networking technologies produce lively and active "communities of interest" that, at the least, provide newcomers with shoulders to stand on and, at best, allow researchers access to key pieces of information hidden away in their far-flung colleagues' computers.


The most easily accessible of these communities are the Usenet newsgroups related to transportation and civil engineering topics. Usenet is a worldwide distributed discussion system consisting of a set of "newsgroups" with names that are classified hierarchically by subject. "Articles" or "messages" are "posted" to these newsgroups by people on computers with the appropriate software. These articles are then broadcast to other interconnected computer systems via a wide variety of networks.

Among the newsgroups available to researchers through Usenet are misc.transport.road and sci.engr.civil. The former is a wide-ranging, international discussion group that joins curious and casual observers with somewhat more serious practitioners of highway engineering. Among the recent subjects up for discussion in misc.transport.road were "in-road sensors for traffic lights," "nonstandard Mass. traffic devices," and "looking for dead interstates."

Not surprisingly, subject matter in sci.engr.civil tends to be more focused and rigorous but encompasses quite a bit more than transportation issues. Nevertheless, a recent scan of the newsgroup uncovered ongoing discussions (also known as "threads") dealing with an "AASHTO LFRD Spec. question," "Avalanche Design of Structures," and the announcement of a NATO Advanced Studies Institute conference on transportation modeling and vehicle routing.

Other Usenet newsgroups of potential interest to transportation researchers include: sci.engr.marine.hydrodynamics, sci.engr.chem,, sci.materials, misc.transport.trucking and misc.transport.urban-transit.

Discussion Groups

A less visible, but no less effective, means of interaction among transportation researchers occurs through discussion groups, which typically are "hosted" by web-site sponsors as part of their information exchange and outreach efforts. For example, the Ohio Department of Transportation hosts a forum ( that invites users to post messages to an existing "conference" or propose a new area for discussion. Most of the subjects recently under discussion were related to the design of the department's web site (

The Washington State Department of Transportation hosts a Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP) site "to coordinate the exchange of information vital to the evaluation and implementation of SHRP products." One aspect of the site are discussion groups set aside for interchange of ideas on asphalt, concrete, highway operations, and long-term pavement performance (

ITS Online (, an "independent" site created by Communication Alchemy of Austin, Texas, offers a smorgasbord of resources for aficionados of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), including six well-populated discussion groups.

E-Mail Groups

E-mail groups offer another mechanism for researchers to participate in an online community - without going online. This system, also known by the brand names of Listserv or Majordomo, enable people with common interests to subscribe and receive by e-mail all messages posted to the list by members of the group. Sometimes these postings are combined into a digest.

One e-mail group tailored for the highway engineering community is offered by the Institute for Transportation Engineers. Anyone can sign up for the group by filling out a brief registration form at the institute's web site (

How to Access Newsgroups

Most Internet dial-up accounts that allow access to the World Wide Web also enable users to download Usenet newsgroups. In some cases, a password system is used to prevent unauthorized access. Once downloaded, the user can "subscribe" to newsgroups so that messages are automatically updated each time the news browser is loaded.

In Netscape, access to Usenet newsgroups starts by configuring the NNTP server with the address provided by your Internet service provider. This field is found by selecting "Mail and News Preferences" under the "Options" command of Netscape and clicking on the "Servers" tab. Once configured, newsgroups can be accessed by launching "Netscape News" under the "Windows" command. In Microsoft Internet Explorer, launch newsgroups by selecting "Read News" under the "Go" command.

Proceed With Caution

A couple of cautionary notes about Usenet newsgroups, discussion groups, and e-mail lists: Don't believe everything you read. Even apparently well-meaning and helpful group members can lead you astray. If you want any aspect of your discussion to remain private, don't post it to a newsgroup. Take your discussion "offline" through private e-mail or the telephone. Follow the rules associated with the newsgroup, discussion group, or e-mail list in which you are participating. Usenet and other sponsors have several online documents that describe what is and isn't acceptable behavior in cyberspace discussions. This includes staying on the subject of the newsgroup.

Ongoing List of Transportation-Related Sites

On Jan. 17, the Federal Highway Administration officially opened new Internet and Intranet sites. The new Internet site ( was recently upgraded to make it easier for users to find the information they seek, and two new sections were added - one for information about the FHWA Quality Journey and one for an electronic version of the popular publication FHWA By Day. To provide all FHWA employees with easy-to-use access to internal information, the Office of Information and Management Services has established an Intranet site (, which can be accessed only by FHWA employees. The new Intranet site includes: personnel and benefits information, headquarters and key field directories, an area to post all-employee messages, internal newsletters, news discussion groups, computer and software information, and direct access to the FHWA Electronic Policy Reference System.

The FHWA Office of Motor Carriers (OMC) site ( contains links to OMC forms for downloading, safety newsletters and alerts, phone numbers of all OMC state offices, press releases about motor carrier safety, and text versions of many important regulations.

The North Carolina Pavement Management Unit has a web site ( with moving images of various equipment used to collect pavement data, as well as information about the management unit and e-mail connections to engineers within the unit.