The Dumbing-Down of “Smart Work Zones”

We talk a lot about smart work zones here so we take it for granted that everyone knows what we mean when we use that term. But apparently many do not. Several states are now requiring smart work zones on projects, but their specifications only show the number of message signs required. The messages on those signs are then changed manually as needed by the TMC. So the only thing that is “smart” about their work zones is the modem in the message signs.

There is so much about this that bothers me! A contractor is being paid to supply a full system, yet is only supplying signs. This cheats taxpayers and road users and results in a far less safe work zone. It will also be more difficult to convince decision makers to include work zone ITS elements in future projects.

The signs are updated manually from the traffic management center. Most TMCs are not staffed 24/7 so the “system” only works when someone is there to operate it. If the DOT chooses to staff the TMC for this purpose they are paying far more than it would cost to automate the process as was originally intended.

They are using existing ITS elements to monitor traffic through the work zone. Most DOTs say that about 20% of permanent loops, sensors and cameras are off line or out of service at any given time. Even on a very well instrumented stretch of roadway, this would leave unacceptable gaps in coverage for most work zones. To react quickly to slowing or stopped traffic you need sensors spaced a half mile to at most one mile apart. At freeway speeds you will then learn of slowing less than a minute after it begins.

And, most important of all, humans cannot react to events and change the signs as quickly as software does. That leads to more secondary crashes, slower EMS response, and longer delays for the folks driving through these work zones.

These states need to tighten up their specifications immediately. There are many good examples of work zone ITS specs available now. Gerald Ullman of the Texas Transportation Institute recently developed a great one for TxDOT. Scott McCanna at Oregon DOT also has a good one. But whatever states choose to use as a specification it must include either specific numbers of sensors, or very clear performance measures regarding event detection and response.

In the meantime, as the torchbearers for work zone ITS, we need to explain what devices and software a work zone must include to be called “smart”. If we do not, we will have only ourselves to blame for the dumb results.

Enable ATIS

In the last post we discussed two states’ plans to control work zone ITS elements using their existing TMC software. I said system operations software is not made to drill down to the work zone level of detail. Some of you disagreed saying it works well. It does make sense to have everything run from the same system. I just don’t think that most systems are ready for us yet.

But a new effort is underway that may help bridge the gap. It is called EnableATIS or Enable Advanced Traveler Information Systems:

It is a USDOT effort to take traveler information to the next level. The idea is to integrate data from a wide variety of sources and to deliver it to everyone that needs it in a way that best meets their needs. The goal is to inform agency decisions day to day and also inform driver decisions regarding route, time of departure, and even travel mode.

Their vision statement is clear and well written. And the work zone ITS community has a role to play in each of the areas. Here it is in its entirety:

“Enable ATIS is a transformative concept of the traveler information community that will:

• Improve transportation system mobility and safety by better informing agency operational strategies as well as individual user decisions

• Foster multi-source data and information integration and delivery that will transform the user experience on the transportation network

• Advance planning, engineering and research with new forms of data about traveler behavior and response to transportation operations

• Promote development of dynamic and transformative applications for real-time, multi-modal, and traveler information partnerships”

EnableATIS efforts began in 2011 and are still very early in the process. It sounds like the 511 Coalition has taken the lead. To date, there has been minimal industry input and zero work zone participation. Industry participation has been limited to just 2 or 3 ITS America members. Work zone vendors, in particular, need to get involved to insure that the eventual system structure will accommodate detailed work zone data and delivery methods will refresh often to update changing traffic conditions ahead of and within the work zones.

There will be opportunities for involvement on several levels:

  • Data definitions
  • Data quality control
  • Data format
  • Delivery channels
  • System architecture

I have said many times that systems operations people don’t understand work zones. They aren’t accustomed to the level of detail our systems provide nor do they understand how important that detail can be. Please consider helping them to build a system that will make full use of all that we, as an industry, can provide.