Jump Start Work Zone Intelligent Transportation Systems in Your State

screenshot-expo atssa com 2016-02-08 10-56-28

We just got back from ATSSA’s annual Traffic Expo held this year in New Orleans. The focus of this show, more than ever before, was innovation. There was a lot of talk about automated and autonomous vehicles. And there were two great workshops on work zone ITS. In particular, I moderated a session Monday morning entitled, “Jump Start Work Zone Intelligent Transportation Systems in Your State”.

It was very well attended, 15 state DOTs were represented along with several local agencies and contractors. The material presented was fresh, and a very lively discussion followed afterward. The workshop looked at new and innovative ways states are contracting for work zone ITS in general and queue warning systems in particular.

Jerry Ullman of TTI led off by talking about the Texas model for contracting for these systems directly with the system providers and outside of the normal project contracting process. Steve Kite of North Carolina DOT talked about his state’s plan for doing the same thing through something similar to a professional services contract.

Keith Roberts of Illinois DOT described what they have done to bid an on-demand contract in his district. They tried doing it in a couple of different but similar ways in two districts. It has been so successful that Illinois is now going state wide. Priscilla Tobias, the Illinois State Safety Engineer, has approved bidding on-demand queue warning systems for all 9 Illinois DOT districts.

The bid includes rental rates for sensors and portable changeable message signs by the day, week and month. This on-demand contract is intended to supply queue warning for projects where the traffic impacts are short term, or unexpected. It could also be used for major incidents. Large projects requiring queue warning already include these systems as a line item and won’t normally use the on-demand rentals.

The obvious advantage to this method is you only pay for the system when you need it. There is never a need to justify use of a queue warning system until the queues develop. And then you order the number of devices you need to address the problem. It really is a more economical use of funding.

Another less obvious advantage is the agency works directly with the system supplier. Communication is faster and more seamless. DOTs learn the system capabilities faster and more completely and make better use of them as a result.

Many other states are now going forward with their own on-demand contracts including Indiana, North Carolina, and Michigan. And given the number of states that attended this session, don’t be surprised if several more join them very soon.

On-demand queue warning has revolutionized work zone ITS. It makes it available when and where it is needed, not just on large projects where traffic impacts are anticipated. We all owe a large debt of gratitude to Jerry Ullman of the Texas Transportation Institute for pioneering this method and to Priscilla Tobias and Keith Roberts of Illinois DOT for perfecting it.

If you would like to learn more you can begin by downloading the Illinois District 9 specification Illinois spec.

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: http://developer.dji.com/challenge2016/ .

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.

Portable Variable Speed Limit Systems

Late last year the FHWA Every Day Counts initiative held another wonderful webinar. This one covered two more work zone ITS products: variable speed limit systems and dynamic lane merge systems. This webinar was so chock full of information that I will discuss them one at a time. You can view the recorded webinar at: https://connectdot.connectsolutions.com/p1rhnco4915/?launcher=false&fcsContent=true&pbMode=normal .

Today let’s start with variable speed limit systems. Todd Peterson of FHWA began by explaining the basic structure and goals of a variable speed limit (VSL) system. These are portable, trailer-mounted signs that move as the work zone moves.

Josh Van Jura of Utah DOT described VSL experience in his state. Utah began with static (manually adjusted) signs. He says they have many interstates posted at 80 MPH. And for construction, especially where workers are exposed to traffic, they like to reduce those speeds significantly – sometimes as much as 30 MPH or more. He later said these systems are especially useful for slab replacement work where you have a relatively long work zone, but workers are present and visible only in one or two small locations. So the system gets the speeds down in advance of the work. It also drives down the speed variance.


So far they have chosen to use these systems where queuing is unlikely. They don’t want to solve one problem, only to cause another upstream. They have been pleased with the results and now want to move to dynamic VSL systems. They applied for and won a grant to finance their research. Kimley-Horn is doing the work.

Mr. Van Jura made an interesting point. He said that this project was especially susceptible to scope creep. As they discussed their wants and needs folks asked for CCTV, weather detection and more. Much of that was for the testing phase primarily. But even then those features would have driven the cost up significantly, so they chose to do without them.

The basic system uses sensors to measure speeds in and near the work zone. Those speeds are sent over a cellular link to a server where they are processed by an algorithm that then adjusts the posted speed limit to match the measured 85th percentile. The displayed speed limit is adjusted no more than every 10 minutes. Everything is date and time stamped showing the posted speed limit at that time at that location.

Todd Foster of VerMac asked what type of sensors they plan to use. As he said, doplar has occlusion issues but side-fire radar is a pain to set up. Josh said they plan to make that decision on a project by project basis. For two lane roads, they will use doplar. For projects on larger facilities they will weigh the need to relocate the sensors, the space available to place those sensors, and the costs associated with each to decide what should be required for that application.

A survey during the webinar asked the audience if their agency was considering using VSL systems in their work zones. 70% said yes. It then asked whether they were considering a regulatory system or an advisory system. 73.8% plan to use a regulatory system. Utah Highway Patrol cooperated fully with this UDOT initiative. Apparently other states don’t see that as an issue either.

We look forward to the final publication of Utah’s research. But it sounds like portable VSL’s should be another tool in our work zone ITS toolbox.

In our next post we will look at their discussion of lane merge systems.

What the Smartphone Supply Chain Can Do for Work Zone ITS

Today we welcome a new work zone ITS blogger: JP Story of Salander. He has written a guest post that I know you will find interesting!

Smartphones are the first technology to be bought by every human being on earth. This is pretty revolutionary in the technology sector, but also has some interesting implications in the Work Zone ITS industry. I’ll give you some background and show an example of how a former fishing village in China can increase work zone safety here in the United States.


It used to be that technology was sold to a subset of the population. You’d sell mainframe computers to Universities, Fortune500 companies and governments. You’d also sell Personal Computers to families and high schools. The addressable market of a product was always just a portion of the population. That’s not the case with smartphones. Roughly 2 billion smart phones have been sold to date.

Lets take a step back though and take a look at my first computer back in 1995. A blazing fast Packard Bell, with a screaming Intel Pentium Processor (the original!).

I’m sure you remember these beige boxes adorning the desks of the 90s.

Compare that Intel Pentium processor to today, 20 years later. The iPhone6 has 625 times the transistors (the basic unit of computing) as my old beige box. On the weekend the iPhone6 launched, Apple sold 25x the PC computing power that was on earth in 1995…in one weekend.

So today, everyone gets a pocket super computer.

Yes, everyone. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the last places on earth to be blanketed in cellular airwaves. As you can see below, they are at about 70% population coverage. 3G is lagging behind but will catch up in the next 5 years. What’s really interesting about this graph is on the right side though. Roughly 37% of the population has a cell phone and yet only 33% of the population has electricity. More people value having a cell phone and being connected to the Internet than they do having electricity. While this poses some interesting problems when you have to negotiate with your neighbors and pay them to charge your phone…it really illustrates the trend that everyone on earth wants/needs a smart phone and access to the global communications network.

The main driver of this is the proliferation of cheap android handsets. Today you can buy a smartphone for $40. Below is an example I just googled, the Maxx MSD7 AX410. In India it costs 1500 rupees, or just under $40. That’s not with any 2 year contract where they subsidize the phone over time. This is $40 straight up, and includes a touch screen, battery, cellular module, Wi-Fi chip and most importantly, the ability to communicate to anyone on earth and learn anything on the Internet. For $40. The economies of scale that allow for this kind of downward pressure on costs is hard to fathom.


To really comprehend how amazing this is, you again have to go back in time. In the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, different tech sectors were more or less ruled by single companies. Microsoft was so famously dominant in the platform sector that they had an anti-trust lawsuit filed against them by the Department of Justice. Today, Apple and Google reap all the profits and are the big shots in platforms. Likewise in the chip world, Intel used to be the big dog. Now Qualcomm and ARM are where you’ll find all the growth. In the mobile space, you used to look to Nokia for a glimpse of the future. Now you look to Shenzhen China…our former fishing village.

Shenzhen Today


Shenzhen was the first of China’s “Special Economic Zones”, where they cut a swath of land and let free market capitalism run free. 30 billion dollars of foreign investment later, and you’ve got 10 million people living and working there, the vast majority in high tech manufacturing. So instead of having single companies enjoy the economies of scale, for the first time, you have an entire city of 10 million competing to drive costs down and deliver high tech products to the entire world. Nearly everything electronic you buy – smartphones, bluray players, TVs, laptops, game consoles – was either built there, or the components that make it up were built there.


So it used to be to create a new ITS product you’d spend 5 years figuring out how to create the chips and hardware and screen and so on. Now you go to Shenzhen and say, “I’ll take a number 4 chip and a number 7 screen with a type 2 battery”. Down the block is a manufacturer who will put it together in whatever configuration you want. The smartphone has enabled us to play Legos with technology. This has given birth to a bunch of new industries in the last 5 years, such as virtual reality, wearables, internet of things such as the Nest Thermostat, drones…the list goes on. What this will also catalyze is connected vehicles, infrastructure to infrastructure, and infrastructure to vehicle communication and collaboration. This is why we’ve seen such a surge in this space – it is all thanks to the smartphone supply chain, enabling our industry to innovate and move forward.
Historically, our industry has moved slowly, but there are glimpses of this new world on the horizon. Since everyone has a smartphone, Bluetooth and WI-FI detectors have surged in popularity as a way to combat the downsides of typical spot detection from loops and provide true flow data. Processing thousands of data points on a 12V solar system? It is possible thanks to low power draw yet incredibly powerful smart phone processors. Modern microwave sensors that incorporate cell modems and cameras from the smartphone supply chain. PCMS from some manufacturers, are full blown Linux servers, enabling a host of new features and awesome features (if only they were specified in).

How else will the smart phone supply chain affect our industry? How can we assemble these “Legos of Technology” in a way that can save lives? Stay tuned to the WorkZoneITS blog, where Joe is always looking to the future and sharing his insights. Also please checkout my new blog at blog.slndrtech.com, where we will be posting ideas and new ways of thinking of technologies role in work zones.
This post was inspired by the work of Bennedict Evans.

New Ways to Contract Work Zone ITS

Contracting methods for work zone ITS have seen some very interesting developments over the past year or so. Several states have chosen to bid this work outside of the project contracting process. Each has its own set of advantages. Today we will discuss those and, I hope, give you some ideas for your own state.

We are just talking queue warning systems at this point. All of these states began there, which makes sense. 26% of all work zone fatalities are as a result of end of queue crashes. But there is no reason we can’t specify other systems such as dynamic merge or travel time or trucks entering with a similar approach. Since these systems share most components in common, this will drive the cost down even further.

Let’s begin with what these state processes have in common. All of them contract work zone ITS outside of the normal project bid process. The systems are not line items in a larger job. Instead, the state DOT has a contract (or contracts) directly with local traffic control companies to supply, install, maintain and remove work zone ITS systems or components. Think of it as an A&E contract.

So far these contracts are all for some combination of traffic sensors and changeable message signs. In most cases they also include the central control software and data archiving. The winning contractor must supply and install equipment as needed, usually within a few hours.

There are several obvious advantages:
• Immediate availability of portable ITS assets and data.
• Ability to use these systems when and where they are needed, even for incident response or special events.
• Traffic operations department knows where they expect problems and assigns assets as needed.
• When systems aren’t needed, it costs the state nothing.
• When needed, these are reimbursable under the Highway Safety Improvement Program at 90%.
• There are no minimums so contractors are motivated to respond quickly so as to earn more work.
• Construction and design folks need not learn about work zone ITS.

Texas (TTI) Model
The first to do this was Texas. They had several major projects planned for the I-35 corridor and asked the Texas Transportation Institute to find ways to prevent rear-end crashes in what they knew would be frequent stop and go traffic.

Because they were the first state to try this and bidders had no way of knowing what would happen, the state purchased the equipment and local traffic control contractors bid the work of installing, removing and maintaining the equipment. Each day TTI looks at planned lane closures, estimates the queue lengths, then calls the contractor and tells them which systems are needed and where. They call out either a type 1 or type 2. A type 1 is 4 sensors and 1 changeable message sign. A type 2 is 8 sensors and 2 CMS.

Advantages: TxDOT pays only for the labor to deploy and maintain the equipment. This method is easier for contractors to bid. They know their labor costs, etc. Whereas work zone ITS system costs are new to most and may be bid on the high side to cover unforeseen expenses.

Minnesota / Iowa Model
For this model, the state contracts with a single equipment rental company to supply, deploy and maintain microwave sensor trailers. The sensors are integrated into the states permanent sensor network. They are used for systems operations functions as well as project specific systems such as queue warning.

Advantages: Seamless integration with permanent assets. Sensors can be quickly relocated as conditions change. Wavetronix sensors provide far more detailed data including lane by lane counts, classifications and volumes. However, they are significantly more expensive than doplar radar.

Illinois Model
Illinois provided the most recent approach to this process. They chose to bid sensors and message signs by the day, week and month delivered within a district. It includes the central controller software and data archiving.

Advantages: This gives local contractors an advantage which will reduce response times to the state.
The state only pays when they order devices. There are no minimum orders. This motivates the contractor to perform well in hopes of getting more work.

In recent weeks several other states are adopting these methods including Indiana, Michigan and Oregon. All three approaches are working well in the states where they are used. The best one for your state will depend on your needs and the underlying contracting regulations you must work within.

Good specification writing is important. You must describe exactly what outputs are required: how system should operate, data access and storage, response times for delivery and set-up, response times for maintenance, repair or damage, etc. Be sure to list the required number and type of each device that the contractor must have in stock and ready to deploy.

You should also consider some sort of prequalification process. It should give a score for financial stability, years in business, and experience with work zone ITS deployments. Prior experience should also be considered for future contracts – both positive and negative.

Keep it simple. You may want to include portable cameras. Or you may want to include separate numbers of microwave and doplar sensors. But don’t get into other devices you aren’t likely to need. The contractor will know these are unlikely to be used much and so will have to bid high to cover their fixed costs.

This new approach makes using work zone ITS far easier to do. It probably saves money as well. It can jump start the use of these systems in your state, so pick the model that fits you best and get started!

All Give and No Take?

ATSSA held their midyear meetings August 12th through the 14th. The Innovation Council (formerly the ITS Council) was one of the first meetings and was very well attended. We were discussing V2I and how our systems will supply data when one of our members asked a great question. Eric Tennessen of Warning Lites of Minnesota asked, “When will vehicles talk to the work zone?” Cars, trucks and even cell phones collect a great deal of information. When and how can we begin to use that data to make our work zones safer?

He makes a great point. We are supplying information to V2I systems. Our work zone ITS sensors collect and disseminate average speeds, travel times, queue warnings and even suggest alternate routes. It is all give and no take. It is time we begin thinking about what those vehicles can tell us.

Several examples come immediately to mind. Many cars now “wake” the drivers when they exhibit behavior typical of a sleepy driver. Why can’t that data be sent to systems in work zones immediately downstream?

That could also be done for vehicles driving well in excess of the posted speed limit, or for those making frequent lane changes or following too close. Those are the drivers whose behavior will cause rear-end and side swipe collisions when others slow for work zones.

There are bound to be privacy issues. And we don’t want drivers turning these features off out of fear that their cars will report them to authorities. So such a system would have to report problem drivers approaching the work zone without actually identifying them.

There is also the problem of false alarms or, more likely, too many alarms. Any aggressive driver warning system will be beeping more often than not. But this could still be useful. When law enforcement is in place in the work zone, they could be alerted automatically. During night work when volumes are lower and drivers more likely to be impaired, workers could be warned to watch for them. I really don’t know how best to make use of that information. But I do know it can and should be used to improve work zone safety.

Work Zone ITS – The Next Step (part 2)

This is the second half of my presentation to the National Rural ITS conference earlier this month. Due to the length of my presentation is it much longer than my regular posts. So I apologize in advance but hope you enjoy it.


There are more issues to consider when gathering data:
1) Choose sensors that meet your needs. Side fire radars like Wavetronix are great if you need lane by lane speeds and volumes. But most of the time speeds alone will tell you what you need to know, in which case standard k-band radar will work just fine. And those cost thousands less. So from a budget standpoint a lower cost per unit could mean many more sensors and much finer data resolution.
2) Simple is also better when the work is staged or moving. Side fire sensors must be moved and re-calibrated by a qualified technician. My people know how to do that for you, but it means another trip to the jobsite and another invoice for our time. K-band is more forgiving and often can be relocated by laborers on the job.
3) For queue warning or dynamic merge always place the sensor farthest up stream well beyond the point at which you expect queuing to extend. That is your emergency sensor. If it trips, you will know it’s time to move your construction area signs and message signs farther out from the job.
4) Frequency of polling. The server where the system software resides and where the data is stored, calls each device on a regular schedule and that is called polling. For travel or delay time systems, you want to smooth the data and more data points give you a more accurate picture. So you should poll every 5 minutes or so. For critical warning systems like queue warning or dynamic merge, most systems trip as soon as the average speed drops below the trigger level, then run until they have been above that level for a few minutes. But if that’s not how your system works, you should poll a minimum of every 2 minutes.

The best metrics for work zone ITS will still vary with the agency, by location, by road classification, and by the type of construction activity. There will even be times when surprises on the job will force you to adapt and take what you can get. So you need to remain flexible as best you can. Try to build a system that can accommodate different types of data, different formats, and incomplete data. As you build up a history, this will still allow you to draw conclusions, even when you get less than perfect data from each project.

Talk to your vendors. Ask them to export the data in a format that fits what you are already doing. Then it is a simple process of copying and pasting it to your data base. Most are more than happy to work with you in that way.

Consider categorizing or tagging your data in several different ways: construction activity, type of facility, traffic volumes (low, medium, high), project goals (reduced crashes, improved efficiency, etc.), and type(s) of traffic control (lane merges, lane shifts, width restrictions, use of barrier, alternate route availability, etc.)

Begin comparing data from similar projects. Do this early and often. Even if you only have two similar projects, there will be lessons to be learned by comparing them. Look for trends and outliers. What worked in terms of staging, of traffic control, and for the work zone ITS system itself? What did not work? What did you wish the system provided that it did not? What data do you find you use most?

Once you do this you will have a much better understanding of the value of these work zone ITS systems. In many ways, this is data we have not had before. We know it is valuable, but because it is new to us, we have not yet learned all of the ways in which we can use it. The standard reports provided by your vendor are often helpful. But only when you examine the data yourself will you truly see the possibilities.

As you gather more and more data from different projects, you will learn things about your traffic control, too. You might learn how best to stage certain types of construction or how to better design your work zones. Your work zones will become safer as a result.

I hope I have convinced you to make better use of your work zone ITS data. But what about states where work zone ITS is not standard practice? You can’t analyze data you don’t have. You have to use these systems first. What can you do about that? Many states don’t want to go through the process of developing specifications and contract language, especially since they aren’t yet experienced with these systems. It’s a chicken and egg sort of problem. You don’t include work zone ITS because you don’t fully understand it, but you will never understand it, until you have deployed a few systems.

We have that problem in my area. Both California and Oregon have written a high level, generic automated work zone information system spec in the hopes of seeing these systems used more often. The idea was for project design folks to then specify the type and quantity of devices for each project. But it hasn’t worked. In fact, neither state has let a single project with work zone ITS as a line item.

I’ve learned that construction design doesn’t know about work zone ITS so they aren’t able to fill in the details. They don’t know how many sensors are needed or how far apart to space them. They have never been through the scenario process where you decide that if traffic slows at this location, change these two message boards to warn of slow traffic ahead. When you think about it, it’s really not surprising that this approach has not worked.

The answer to this problem is individual system specifications: one for queue warning, another for travel time systems, dynamic merge, trucks entering/ exiting, etc. They include the types of devices needed and often include the quantities as well. Each is ready to plug into project special provisions. The design team doesn’t need to know how they work. All they need to know is that they expect a problem, such as dynamic queuing, so a queue warning system should be included.

Speaking of queue warning systems, that is the first specification you should create. 26% of all work zone fatalities are a result of end of queue crashes. And as we will soon discuss, queue warning systems are a proven countermeasure. Best of all, the states of Texas and Illinois have already done the work for you. Texas Transportation Institute created a simple, easy to use contracting method and Illinois has adopted it and improved on it. Several other states are now following their examples.

In both cases the states let a separate contract by district for a daily, weekly and monthly rate to supply queue warning systems. Texas breaks it down to two different packages: a smaller one and a larger one. The smaller system includes 4 sensors and 1 portable changeable message sign. The larger system includes 8 sensors and 2 message signs. TTI looks at volumes and planned lane closures and then calls out the appropriate system for each night’s work.

Illinois breaks it down further. They have separate line items for sensors and for message signs by day, week and month. They then call out the quantity of each device they will need to handle the expected queue lengths.

In both states the ITS work is not tied to a specific project. Rather, it is separate so they could use these systems on two projects one day, and three other projects the following day. It is not tied to construction, so they can also use them for incident response or special events. There are no minimums so the states decide when and where the systems are needed. It also motivates the contractor to do a great job so the state will call them out more often.

Texas Transportation Institute has been doing this for a couple of years now. They just released a study in partnership with FHWA focused on queue warning systems. TTI reported that at the time the report was prepared, the system had been deployed on over 200 nighttime lane closures in the I-35 corridor. They compared the crash experiences at lane closures where queues were expected but no system was used to lane closures where the system was deployed. Although the study is not complete, the data suggest that the systems are being very effective.

Crashes on nights where lane closures are deployed with an end-of-queue warning system are 45 percent lower than they would have been if the systems had not been deployed. 45 percent! TTI estimated that the systems saved between $1.4 million and $1.8 million in societal crash costs so far, and continue to be used as needed on the projects, further increasing their return on investment. Stated another way, it appears that the system reduces expected crash costs between $6,600 and $10,000 every night it is deployed!

We have always known queue warning systems save lives. But, until now, we have not had definitive data. Now it is proven. Yes, the actual numbers may vary slightly once they reach a point of statistical significance. But the results are so positive that it doesn’t matter. It’s no longer a question of whether you should use these systems. Now the question is, “Why aren’t you using them everywhere you expect frequent, dynamic queuing?”

None of the old excuses hold water now. The systems are proven not just effective, but phenomenally effective. And, the Texas/Illinois model for contracting this work is approved by FHWA and is reimbursable under HSIP at 90%. So there is no reason to hold back now. Get these systems going in your state. Collect the data. Archive it. And then begin reaping the many new lessons learned from that wealth of data. Once you have done that for a year or two, please come back here and share what you have learned with the rest of us.