Adapting Existing Technology to Unusual Traffic Problems

The work zone ITS industry has produced many creative ways to help mitigate the impacts to traffic from work zones and to protect workers from that same traffic. But often the problems we solve aren’t the same ones we set out to address. This is true for most industries when they encounter new technology.

According to author H. W. Brand it was true for the movie industry as well. When the first “talkies” were released, “Sam Warner (of Warner Brothers’ fame) convinced his brothers to purchase a technology that allowed the attachment of sound to recording film.” “The initial appeal was that sound would permit theaters to dispense with the orchestras that played accompaniment to otherwise silent films.” Today we can’t imagine movies without the sounds of explosions, gun fire, and, of course, dialogue.  But they were focused on the economic benefits of the technology and so missed what we all see as the obvious artistic advantages.

The same is often true in our industry. Our technologies are more mature now, though new ideas are introduced every day. But too often we miss good opportunities to improve the safety or efficiency of our roads because we don’t have a prepackaged system ready to deploy.

In fact, we do have them ready. We just don’t think it through far enough. Most of our systems use sensors to measure traffic flow, then compare that data to a set of rules, which then trigger outputs like messages to message signs, or alarms at a traffic management center. So it does not matter what your traffic concern is, a system can probably be created to address it. And while such a system could be called “custom”, it won’t normally be saddled with the costs and lead times normally associated with custom systems.

Redding Map

A good example was a demo project done for Caltrans a few years ago. They were closing one of their busiest ramps in Redding for reconstruction. The plan called for them to send traffic to alternate ramps. But no one of those was capable of handling the volumes at the closed ramp. Road-Tech proposed a simple solution. A sensor was placed on each of the alternate ramps. And portable changeable message signs directed traffic to the best alternate. As traffic backed up on the first alternate ramp the sensor detected the stopped traffic. That caused the system to change the message signs to recommend the second alternate ramp. If that ramp backed up traffic was sent to a third alternate ramp.

It was simple, inexpensive, and worked very well. The only problem encountered was public outreach efforts scared everyone away. So the volumes were never as high as expected. But this does show what can be done with the tools we already have. No one talks about alternate ramp systems. But it turns out we had one ready to go. We just didn’t know it.

Next time you are faced with a traffic problem, try to imagine a rule. That rule would say, “If traffic does X, make Y happen.” So if traffic slows I want to change the message signs to warn of STOPPED TRAFFIC AHEAD. Or if average traffic speeds exceed 75 MPH, I want to send an alarm to the police department. If you can come up with a rule, a solution is probably already available. Keep that in mind and you’ll be surprised what can be done!

Evolving Drone Technology

We haven’t talked much about drones here. Our last discussion was in June of 2014. We talked in more detail in September of 2013.

Until now, drones have been more of a curiosity than anything else. But that is beginning to change. Komatsu and Caterpillar are both exploring the use of unmanned aircraft for monitoring and collecting construction data. And it was just announced that Ford and drone manufacturer DJI have teamed up to offer a $100,000 prize for the best app to rapidly deploy drones in emergency situations from Ford trucks equipped with their Sync technology. The contest started January 10th and runs through March 10th of this year. Learn more at: .

This is a contest we should all be interested in. Assuming they do come up with a quick and easy way to deploy and recover drones from Ford pickups, it will help more than just UN relief efforts. It will almost certainly become a standard tool in our traffic operations tool box. Certainly these will be useful for major incident response.  Drones might be used to document work zone design and maintenance. And drones with longer duration flight times may one day be used to monitor traffic in real-time. Drones are rapidly evolving from “toys” into serious ITS platforms and we should all take notice.

The Future of Work Zones and Automated Vehicles

Today I have asked Ross Sheckler of iCone Products to discuss his thoughts about the future interaction of automated and autonomous vehicles and work zones.

rossWZITS: Ross, there is a lot of discussion lately about automated and autonomous vehicles and how they will negotiate work zones and other temporary changes to the road geometry. What are you most concerned about with this technology?

RS: I think a there is a lot to learn about the road if you can step into another person’s shoes and view it from their perspective. The general public has used the commercial navigation systems and has come to expect that the road they’re looking for is on the digital map. More technical users generally recognize that the precision of most digital maps needs to be increased in order to navigate a car down a particular lane. There is a lot of focus on increasing both the accuracy and precision of these digital maps.

WZITS: Automation, they say, will greatly reduce crashes and improve safety on our roadways. Are there any positives for the work zone and incident management worlds?

RS: I think that automated cars that share a network of information with other cars can be a very positive thing for both work zones and evacuations. On some of our jobs we work hard to get ten or fifteen percent of the drivers to choose a different route because it improves everyone’s mobility and safety. The problem is that people tend to resist the unknown of a different route, this is particularly true for commercial truck drivers. You never know if you are going to get stuck some place you don’t want to be. The magical thing about automation, even just good navigation devices, is that people have come to trust them implicitly.

Imagine a hurricane evacuation scenario where a city like Miami is being evacuated. The state of Florida has specific evacuation routes all planned out but I doubt many of the residents know the route from their home let alone the route from some other part of the city. Navigation devices should have all of these routes coded in and be able to navigate you from wherever you are to safety. If those same devices could use real-time closure data the vehicles on a route that has been blocked by construction or an accident could be redistributed to updated evacuation routes based on their precise location.

The same should be true for blockages or slow-downs based on work zones. The catch is there needs to be a lot more data than we currently have.

WZITS: Automation is a catch phrase that includes a wide variety of technologies. Would you like to venture a guess as to the ones that will be used by the vast majority of car companies?

RS: I would like to think that cruise controls for traffic jams and smarter dynamic routing systems will be the first automation that will be widely adopted.

Taking the stress and risk out of stop-and-go traffic is going to be a big help for safety and mobility.

Having more information on activities such as construction and flagging will support smarter routing algorithms. I would like to think that our cars will direct us away from workers and backups in a way that gives us confidence that we are taking the best route.

WZITS: How will that impact the future of the roadway safety infrastructure industry?

RS: I think we can get to a world where as workers arrive to set up a work zone, no matter how small, their presence is noted in the national databases and cars automatically take other routes if they can. If we can get twenty or thirty percent of vehicles to divert around places where workers are present I would be willing to bet we will prevent a disproportionate number of accidents both to workers and travelers.

Work Zone ITS – The Next Step

On August 10th I spoke at the National Rural ITS conference at the Snowbird Resort in Utah. My goal was to push the audience to make better use of their work zone ITS data. Due to the length of my presentation I have broken it into two parts. But it is still much longer than my regular posts so I apologize in advance. I hope you enjoy it.


Thank you all for this opportunity to speak with you today. For those of you that don’t know me, I have been in the work zone ITS business for nearly 20 years. I started in the industry with ADDCO where I first learned about networking portable equipment to improve work zone safety. In 2001 I started Road-Tech to focus on this new and growing field of work zone ITS. But 20 years! It’s difficult to believe, isn’t it?

The primary goal of work zone ITS has always been improved safety and system efficiency, as it should be. But by deploying these systems we are now generating a great deal of data. It is time we began making better use of that data: both today and in the future.

This morning we will talk about data: about different kinds of data, and what works and what does not. We will talk about how best to collect that data and ways it can be used to improve the safety and efficiency of our work zones. We will talk about a new and innovative way to contract this work and, best of all, how to pay for it. Finally, I will share the exciting results of a recently released study proving the effectiveness of these systems. I want you to leave this session fired up about making better use of these systems, and knowing how to get that done.

So, why collect data? There are at least three reasons: 1) The Federal Work Zone Safety & Mobility Rule says we must collect data on our work zones and use it to evaluate their performance. In fact, the HSIP final rule describing these requirements will be published any day now. [ADD DETAIL AFTER FINAL RULE?]

2) By looking carefully at the data from current systems, we can find ways to make better use of the systems we are already using. They are like any other tool. When you fully understand its capabilities, you will make better use of it. This will result in even more improvements in the safety & efficiency of our roadways, and will make better use of our limited resources.

3) By learning more about the data generated, we learn more about the systems themselves and which ones work best in varying applications. Each manufacturer has their particular strengths and weaknesses. The easiest way to see those is through an examination of the data. This will make you better at defining what you need and want from systems on future projects.

But before you do, three things must happen:
1) You must have the right kinds of data…information you can use. In most cases this comes in the form of a log. The log will show reported speeds at each sensor with date and time stamps. It will show when a message sign was changed and what data triggered it.

2) You must collect it and hold onto it. And you must systematically categorize it for later analysis. There are data base programs available. Microsoft Access or something similar works well. But you could start with a simple spreadsheet and use that until you find you have outgrown it.

3) You must get to know your data, what affects it and how. We will talk about this in more detail later, but I will give you a simple example. On a queue warning system deployment, Caltrans noticed the message signs changing to warn of slow traffic early in the morning while volumes were quite low. They looked at the data and saw that one sensor was reporting stopped traffic while speeds at the other sensors were at the posted speed. They checked the job and found that the contractor was paving in that area and their trucks and rollers were the slow traffic. They relocated the sensor and the problem was solved.

So let us begin with data. Which data should we use? What works best and is most available? I spoke at a peer-to-peer exchange a couple of years ago about this very subject. At that time I asked far more questions than I answered. I think they were a little disappointed. But today the answers to those questions are more apparent. The list you settle on will include obvious metrics like traffic speeds and volumes, serious crashes, and perhaps delay time or queue length. Those are all measurable and reportable and are good indicators of conditions in your work zones.

You might also consider less obvious measures such as speed variance when speeding is a problem or volume reductions through the work area if your goal for the project was to divert traffic onto alternate routes.

There are several things you should consider when making these decisions. Let’s go through them one at a time.

1) Real time data versus collected data. This is obvious but bears discussion. Real time data is used to monitor current work zone performance and to trigger messages and other responses to changing conditions. Collected data is used later to evaluate work zone design, staging, and to plan future work zones in similar situations. Ideally the data you collect will work for both. But the needs for each will vary so be sure to check that all of your data needs will be met.
2) Project level data versus system performance data. The real data wonks in most agencies are accustomed to using system performance data. They want to know how well traffic flows over a single route or at a regional level. System data might tell us there was a problem in our work zone, but it would not tell us where. We need much more detailed, granular data so we can know what is occurring in and near our work zones. This is important because those systems operations folks will probably be leading any data collection effort. They are great advocates for data collection, but they don’t understand work zones. You must help them understand why you need something different.
3) Probe Data versus Spot Data. This is related to the last topic of project data versus operations data. Many agencies are knee deep in probe data. It is collected anonymously from cell phones, toll tags and BlueTooth. Cell phone data, in particular, is relatively inexpensive and easy to get. It is collected and displayed over a road segment. Some segments are as little as a couple of miles long but most are much longer. You may get lucky and find a segment covers the same stretch of road as a work zone, but not very often. So you end up with two or more segments overlapping your work zone or a single segment that’s much longer than you need. Warnings of slow or stopped traffic are only generated by probe data once average speeds over that segment drop below the trigger point. In other words, if you are only using probe data you may not learn about the incident for several minutes. Furthermore, probe data only tells you there is a problem. It won’t tell you where the problem begins. Spot data, on the other hand, tells you the moment speeds slow at a sensor. And because you have multiple sensors, you will know where in your work zone the problem begins.
4) The importance of “raw” data. The advantage of work zone ITS systems is the automation of responses to changing conditions. In that way we update message signs, send text alerts, etc. to warn of incidents and thereby reduce their impacts. It all happens instantly, without the need for human involvement. That’s great, don’t change a thing. But take the time later to look at the underlying data. When you have an incident, go back and look at what happened, when it happened, and where it happened. Compare the data to the outputs to learn how the system responded. I’ve always said that deploying these systems is 90% science and 10% art. The art comes from looking at the data and making adjustments to get the best possible performance from the ITS system.
5) The Importance of Multiple Data Points. One spot sensor might be all you need if you are worried about traffic backing up on an off ramp, or for a trucks entering system. But most of the time you need multiple sensors. For queue warning we recommend spacing them a mile to as little as a half mile apart. The smaller the distance between them, the faster you will learn of any problems. That means you will respond faster resulting in shorter delays, and fewer secondary crashes. For travel or delay time systems, more data points result in more accurate reporting.

Choosing the Best Portable Traffic Sensor

Technology has supplied our industry with a wide variety of traffic sensors. Each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Which one is best for your application? This may seem complicated at first, but the answers to a few simple questions will point you in the right direction.

First, please remember these are portable sensors. Ordinarily that means they should run off of 12 volt power, lending them to solar and/or battery power. They should have minimal power requirements, so they will run for an extended period of time without maintenance. And they should be easy to set-up and move around. Conditions on high way projects are constantly changing, so it must be easy to move the sensors to meet those changing conditions.

Next, think about the system to which these sensors will supply data. What data is needed? How often is it needed? How accurate must it be?

Queue warning systems just need speeds. So doplar radar works well and it is inexpensive. Doplar also works better at very low speeds. Microwave sensors provide additional data, but they are more expensive and don’t work as well below 20 MPH. Dynamic merge systems, like queue warning systems, just need average speeds. So doplar is best.

Travel time or delay time systems can be designed in a variety of ways. If most of the traffic continues on that route and doesn’t stop for any reason, probe data may work. Check the way it is reported in that location. They report speeds or travel times over a road segment. If that segment or segments match the route you want to watch, it should work well. However, if the segments don’t match up or if much of the traffic turns off or stops along the way, you will have to look at other options. One option is other forms of probe data. BlueTooth, toll tag or license plate readers can be placed at the exact limits of the route you are monitoring. But they are more expensive and still require a good volume of through traffic to report accurately. The easiest method uses spot sensors. In that case you gather average speeds at each location and calculate the average travel or delay time. Depending on the application, spot sensors are often more accurate that probe data

Will your work require you to relocate the sensors as work progresses? If so, that’s another good reason to use doplar sensors. Microwave sensors such as RTMS or Wavetronix, must be set-up and calibrated by a qualified technician. It doesn’t take long, but it is more expensive and must be scheduled. Doplar can often be relocated by laborers on the job. It is more forgiving in terms of aiming and distance from the live lanes.

On the other hand, some states now import portable sensor data directly into their real time traffic data. In that case, the portable sensor data should mirror the permanent sensor data as much as is practical. In those cases microwave sensors are probably the better choice.

The real lesson here is to consider what your needs are first, then find the tool that will best fill those needs.

Selling Spot Speed Data to Overwhelmed Consumers of Probe Data

It was just a few short years ago that we were all wishing for more and better data. We still are in the work zone world, but the systems operations world is suddenly inundated with data. Cell phone data, loops and radar sensors, toll tag readers and BlueTooth readers are now sending traffic information to your local traffic management center faster than it can be absorbed.

So we in the work zone world find ourselves in a tough position. We are offering data to these same traffic management centers that they neither want nor understand. They aren’t making use of the data they have now so they can’t justify the effort to acquire more of it. And because they are systems operations folks they don’t yet understand the need for spot speed detection on a road where they already are getting cell phone probe data.

This is a battle we are all going to fight soon, if you aren’t already, so let’s review the differences. Systems operations needs to know how traffic is moving by route or through the region. Work zones are more focused, looking only at traffic movement over the affected route in or near the work zone. Operations goal is to identify problems, report them to the public and thereby divert traffic onto the unaffected routes. Work zone practitioners do the same thing, but they are more concerned about correcting the problem, whether it’s just a crash within the work area or a slow down caused by the work zone design. In short, systems operations is a “big picture, 30,000 foot” look at a region. Work zones must be much more detailed or granular. They want to know where the problem begins so they can more easily identify the cause and correct it. This is not to say that operations is not also concerned with incident response. They are, of course. But work zones are the #1 cause of non-recurring congestion. They warrant more attention for this reason alone.

The FHWA agrees. The Federal Work Zone Safety & Mobility Rule says we must collect data on our work zones and use that to monitor and improve their performance. That data shall include speeds or volumes through the work zone and at key locations within the work zone including the advance warning area, the taper and the work area itself. The question then becomes, “How do we collect this data in the most efficient and cost-effective manner?”

Probe data is less expensive. And it is already being collected. If an agency is paying for the service, they already know how traffic is moving over that route. However, they won’t learn about problems as quickly because probe data is reported over road segments. Highway road segments can be as little as a mile long, but more often are much longer, especially in rural areas. So it can take several minutes before they see the average speeds drop over an 8 mile long road segment.

They also won’t know where the problem within that segment is located. So any effort to correct it will necessarily take longer. Longer response means the delay will become worse leading to more secondary crashes and greater driver frustration.

This is even more important if you are using the system for more than data collection. If it is also being used for something like a queue warning or a dynamic merge application, you must have immediate notifications and those are not available from probe data.

Portable speed sensors have another important advantage. They are portable. They can be moved as the construction work moves to gather data at critical locations. So, although the lane closure has moved, you will still know how traffic is moving at the new taper or lane shift.

Yes, these systems cost money. And resources are limited. But recent studies show benefit / cost ratios as high as 7 to 1, even 10 to 1 in some cases, so it is truly a good use of taxpayer dollars. And as we have discussed, no other technology gets us the detail we need to make our work zones as safe and efficient as they can be.

KPCB Internet Trends Report

Mary Meeker of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers recently released their highly anticipated Annual Internet Trends report ( ). Many of the statements she made had clear application to the world of work zone ITS.

The first was regarding the rapid transition to mobile devices. In May of 2013, 11% of all web usage was through mobile devices. Just one year later, in May of 2014 that has already jumped up to 19%. Tablets were the fastest growing segment of mobile devices (up more than 52% over the previous year), though smart phones are by far the largest segment and still growing at a good clip (more than 20% per year). Android operating systems as a percentage of the total market jumped from just over 20% in 2010 to 80% last year. Clearly, we as an industry must change the way we make work zone information available to make it easy to read and understand on a variety of mobile devices.

She also said that as mobile platforms grow, the number of directed attacks will rise.
So we must also tighten our security to withstand these inevitable cyber attacks.

Messaging apps have added more than 1 billion users in less than 5 years. Where social media like Facebook are good for sending fewer messages to large groups, messaging apps are far better at sending specific, targeted messages to small groups and individuals. Clearly this will be the future of consumer focused traffic data. Users will demand data targeted to their travel habits, time of day and day of the week, and current location.

Add to that the newest trend of all those people with mobile devices & sensors uploading data. That data can be mined and formatted to produce huge benefits, especially in the traffic world. The average smart phone has many sensors. A Samsung S5 now has 10 sensors: Gyro, fingerprint, barometer, hall (recognizes whether cover is open or closed), ambient light, gesture, heart rate, accelerometer, proximity & compass. This array of sensors means the consumers of your data can also be the providers of additional data. Mining that data, and understanding how it can fit with what you are already supplying to make it better or more complete, will be key to work zone ITS growth in the next few years. We can no longer just supply stand alone systems.

The market will demand seamless data through a variety of ever changing channels. We don’t need to understand those channels, but we do need to provide our data in a flexible format that fits easily into those channels and that is targeted to individual consumers of that data.

The good news is that ad revenue is also growing rapidly. It jumped from about $8 billion in 2012 to $12 billion in 2013. Mobile app sales have grown even more, from $16 billion in 2012 to $26 billion in 2013. There are already many mobile traffic and work zone focused apps. But there are opportunities for vendors to sell new ones if they can find the right combination of targeted information and user friendliness.