The War On Traffic

Researchers and engineers in Virginia are shooting to solve traffic problems forever.

by Jonathan P. Kauffmann


As his alarm sounds at 6:00 a.m., Steven Booth slowly rolls out of bed to begin his day. But once again, it's a bittersweet morning for Booth. While he enjoys his job as a dental assistant, he despises the commute from his Williamsburg, Virginia home to his job in Norfolk. The 40-mile stretch down Interstate 64 can be hellish: constant construction, rear-end collisions, and miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

But Booth's commute doesn't have to be hellish. Nor do the commutes of millions of other Americans as they travel to and from work each day. Traffic experts in Virginia are using computer technology to revolutionize the way Americans travel on the nation's highways. Virginia's Smart Travel program, one of the few projects of its kind in the country, is aiming to keep motorists informed of traffic conditions with up-to-the-minute reports and predictions. These warnings will save motorists from waiting in those endless lines of stagnant traffic.

In order to provide drivers with accurate and useful information, researchers developed the Smart Travel Lab at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Situated on the first floor of Thornton Hall, the actual lab - with bars on the windows to keep high-tech thieves away - consists of a sea of monitors, connected to a legion of computers. This lab serves as the central nervous system for Virginia's Smart Travel research program. Without the help of regional Smart Travel Centers (STCs) across Virginia, the lab in Charlottesville would stall out.

Here's how the system works: STCs in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia collect data from the surrounding roadways with video cameras and induction loop sensors. These sensors, which are located on Interstates 44, 64, and 264, compile traffic data and relay it to the nearest STC every two minutes. This information is used in two ways. First, STC control workers study the video and data to check for heavy traffic throughout their area. If they observe any delays, the workers warn motorists of the looming delay and offer alternate routes by putting travel tips on changeable message boards lining Virginia's highways. The control centers also relay the collected data to Charlottesville, where software analyzes the data and provides warnings about future traffic flow.

Dr. Brian Smith, a research assistant professor in U.Va.'s civil engineering department and co-director of the Smart Travel Lab, helped to ignite the idea for Virginia's Smart Travel program a few years back. And as he sits in his office on the second floor of Thornton Hall, Smith's dislike of the congestion and disorder that plague the nation's highways emerges - his perfectly pressed shirt, a stack of neatly aligned papers, and an immaculate desk reveal his attraction to order. "I've always been interested in how systems and organizations work."

A few years back, working for the Virginia Transportation Research Council (VTRC), Smith and his colleagues were searching for solutions to Virginia's overpopulated highways. The easy solution would have been to add new roads. But as Smith leans forward in his chair, he recalls one major problem, "We were running out of places to put roads and there wasn't enough room for new lanes. We needed to find a way to have efficient road use."

Though researchers will eventually link the Charlottesville lab to several control centers across the state, lab workers currently receive video and data feeds only from the Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia STC. With this information, the lab's software runs computer simulations to forecast traffic conditions and accidents.

Smith compares these predictions to weather forecasting, "This program helps to make sure travel is faster and more predictable. Sometimes we can't prevent an accident from happening, but we can at least make sure you have the information. Like the weather, you can't change traffic. But you can prepare for it."

Researchers and engineers are working to make the forecasting available on the project's Web site, which will enable motorists to know traffic conditions before they rev up their engines. By entering the stretch of road, the day, and the time you plan to travel, the forecasting software on the Web page will predict traffic conditions. Say, for instance, that Steven Booth wants to check the traffic conditions on his way to work on a Friday morning. He would type in Interstate 64 Eastbound between Williamsburg and Norfolk on Friday morning at 7:00 am. The Web software would process this information - looking for patterns from past Friday mornings on I-64 - and a few minutes later would let him know what kind of traffic to expect on his trip to work.

Drivers will also be able to check the Web page for current conditions and receive live camera views of the road. Not only will the Web page be equipped with up-to-date maps showing the level of highway congestion, but researchers are developing software that will take video feeds from the roads and produce an automated video tour of sections of the highway.

This traffic information, which researchers hope to update every two minutes, could prove extremely important in the years to come when cars are equipped with computers. While drivers are on the highway, they could constantly check the traffic on upcoming roads and take alternate routes when the Smart Travel Web page warns them.

Just as FBI agents and policemen attend specialized training programs before they hit the streets, traffic control center workers also need a place to practice their skills. The Charlottesville lab gives traffic control workers a place to improve their skills in reacting to traffic problems. The lab also challenges workers with unique traffic scenarios. Workers learn what to do in a simulation environment so that they can make quick and accurate decisions when it counts.

Even with the strides that Smith and his team of workers have made in the short time since the project began, the Smart Travel Lab has hit some roadblocks. Smith notes, "There are so many different pieces that have to come together for something like this: writing software, buying computers, and dealing with communications companies. It's easy for things to go wrong."

But Smith prides his strong core of workers for the project's success to this point. Along with the Virginia Transportation Research Council and the Virginia Department of Transportation, six engineering students from U.Va. helped to launch the Smart Travel Lab. The students began this past summer and are currently writing software, programming computers, and updating the lab's Web page. Though none of them have worked on a project of this nature before, Smith raves about their performances, "They've done a great job. I was very impressed with their progress this summer during the opening stages."

Smith also considers the Smart Travel Lab a fantastic opportunity for the students. "In terms of learning, this project is better than a class. It's something they can put on their resume and then tell potential employers to look at their Web page."

Senior systems engineering major William Hancock, one of Smith's student workers, considers the experience to be more than just something to put on his resume. Having worked on the lab since May, Hancock is proud to be part of such a useful project. "There is a lot of research going on that will only affect a select group of people. But the Smart Travel program can potentially make a difference in everyone's life."

The Smart Travel Lab site can be accessed on the World Wide Web at http://SmartTravelLab.Virginia.edu

On The Brink