InTrans / Jul 27, 2015

Taking traffic tracking to the next level: Inside the Traffic Operations Laboratory in Ames, Iowa

Go! Magazine

posted on July 27, 2015

What’s happening on the road? What’s causing it? Those questions continue to daunt transportation engineers across the country as they attempt to make better decisions and increase roadway safety. Who are you going to call? Well, this isn’t a movie. Real transportation engineers are working to answer these questions. A partnership between the Institute for Transportation (InTrans), the Iowa Department of Transportation (Iowa DOT) and Iowa State University (ISU) has made the creation of the Traffic Operations Laboratory possible, along with, of course, the Iowa DOT’s continued investment in monitoring technology throughout the state.

Iowa is one of the few states with this type of laboratory. With the ability to record videos of traffic jams, crashes, and daily traffic flow, this laboratory allows researchers to better understand the reasons why accidents happen. Students, faculty, and staff actively engage with this real-time data to improve safety and reliability of the road for drivers over time.

To better understand how the Traffic Operations Laboratory will impact the future of transportation in Iowa, I spoke with Neal Hawkins, the director for the Center for Transportation Research and Education (CTRE) at InTrans, and Mike Jackson, the state traffic engineer for the Iowa DOT.

A conversation with Neal Hawkins and Mike Jackson

What do you do?

Mike: My responsibility is to help manage transportation in the State of Iowa. From an engineering standpoint, and in addition to collecting lots of data, I focus on safety and mobility, information technology, and technology improvements on highways. At the Iowa DOT, we want to analyze and evaluate the data collected to make better decisions about traffic. This is where InTrans helps, because we rely on their transportation researchers to provide additional skillsets.

Neal: And my job is to work with faculty, staff, and students to conduct research—more specifically—research targeted towards surface transportation and improvements to be made. There’s lots of data collected after equipment is put out on the road. Our goal is to be sure it’s accurate and consistent, and that we are being innovative in how we use it.

What is the laboratory’s greatest contribution?

Neal: At the end of the day, we hope the laboratory will help improve decision making in the short and long term, especially in terms of how the Iowa DOT uses money to improve or install equipment. This can range from safety features, programming, or even deciding how to respond to general traffic operations.

What is the Iowa DOT’s role in this?

Mike: Our goal is to help support InTrans. The Iowa DOT has lots of equipment all over state that is capable of processing. However, while you can connect servers at remote locations, you’re still limited in the communication between different servers. Our job is to help pull this data into the Traffic Operations Laboratory where staff and students can easily access it. The laboratory not only gives us access to this stored data, but it also lets us visually monitor traffic patterns from 300 or so cameras across the state.
Can you explain how different disciplines can contribute?

Neal: Take, for instance, the computer science discipline. We are relying on their skills to be able to analyze and display large data sets. We are getting data coming in every 20 seconds for the whole state of Iowa (about 10,000 miles of roadway). They are able to help us analyze the data by putting it in a usable format, and they also aid in putting thresholds in the system. These tools are being integrated through Mike’s efforts at the Iowa DOT.

Mike: One colleague has a job that’s just social media. She helps by putting out tweets as alerts and messages. It’s interesting because people are tweeting, interacting, and sharing a lot more now. This could be especially important if someone, in a rural area, says: “There’s been a crash, and traffic is delayed.” This is information we otherwise didn’t know. So we are figuring out how to embrace social media even more.

What do you do with this real-time data?

Mike: Say that alerts go off in the metro area. We have cameras that can immediately look in on what’s going on. So if there’s a crash we can call local law enforcement, maintenance crews, or simply get ahold of the right folks in a timely way.

Neal: We are also now using it in work zones on busy roads. We can use our equipment to remotely send a message to nearby display boards telling drivers in advance that there is slow or stopped traffic ahead. This can be done automatically by just monitoring the speed data to trigger the message.

Where is this data on speed coming from?

Mike: We use Inrix to get information from trucking and cell phone companies on speed and how well traffic is flowing. You’ve seen it before. Google Maps shows the real-time view of how congested the roads are:a red road means a lot of congestion. Google gets their information by partnering with cell phone companies who are constantly monitoring traffic flow via your smartphone and other sources.

Say you can see that there is a lot of speeding on a road. What do you do with that information?

Mike: In case you are wondering, we don’t provide this information to law enforcement to give out tickets. If there’s a segment prone to accidents and the speed is high, we figure it may be contributing to accidents. We will then implement tools to try to mitigate speeding. Enforcement is just one tool. And actually, studies show that enforcement is only effective when the police are there. It’s not actually the best long-term approach.

How does this information help you make decisions?

Neal: The first step is to look at the data streams available. We ask: “Are they accurate, repeatable, and work on regular basis?” If so, how do you integrate that data and tie it to the roadway? We are thinking about the number of lanes, weather, and traffic volume. You then use this for decision making. Say you thought a road was carrying about 10 percent trucks, but really it’s 40 percent. With that many trucks what should you do differently—do you flatten the road? Make it wider?

Next, you do something called “forecasting.” This is the part where you are using data to predict. We like to create predictive models to do scenario planning so when we do choose a solution, we run it through different scenarios and models to show that this is indeed an ideal solution. This gives us the ability to provide predictive capability so that everything we do follows a more reliable, efficient, and effective path.

Will computers be able to do this work someday?

Neal: Many things that we are doing involve computers and use computers to the fullest extent—whether it’s compressing data or analytical in nature. The bottom line is that computers are involved in everything we do. However, with this data there is a strong need for storytelling, which is something a computer cannot do alone. We are using computers to do a lot of things, but it must ultimately be translated by a person into an effective message that can aid in decision making.

What about the future?

Neal: Smart car technology, which already exists, will be able to eventually communicate all of this information to our system. This will help reduce the amount of distractions for drivers (which can be the case in self-reporting traffic apps). Technology, such as auto-braking cars, already exist and can be an asset to us for trying to understand what’s happening on the road now and into the future.

By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

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