“The Valley’s Highways Pick Up Speed,” Phoenix Magazine


by Lori DeBoer

In the rush to break the Valley’s traffic gridlock, the road to success may be paved with electronic sensors, magnetic tape and microchips.

Smart highways and smart cars–or Intelligent Transportation Systems–are the stuff of Jules Verne’s dreams, from traffic lights that react immediately to fluctuating traffic conditions to cars that drive themselves. Imagine: Never be stuck at a dead intersection by a red light again; Apply your makeup on the road without rear ending someone; Get paged whenever your favorite home-to-work route jams. The first scenario is in beta phase, the second could happen within the next 15 years, and the third scenario–getting real-time traffic reports via pager–is available now.

Most of all, because smart highways and smart cars can triple the amount of traffic a road can carry, local transportation agencies have put the pedal to the metal to implement them.

“With the tremendous population growth we have, the freeways and highways are becoming overcrowded,” says Howard Boice, public information officer for the Arizona Department of Transportation. “We are reaching our population projections for 20 years in about seven years, which is putting tremendous pressure on us to increase the freeway miles-which we have done. But even with that, we aren’t going to have enough capacity.”

Before the Valley’s traffic snarls could be untangled, the bureaucratic jurisdictions had to be sorted out. Enter AZTech, a consortium of more than 30 public and private entities whose ability to cajole ten cities, one county, and three districts into coordinate their systems–on time and under budget–garnered awards from the Federal Highway Administration, Traffic Technology International and elsewhere.

“Everyone has access to the technology. The trick is how to use it, and the most serious problem is jurisdiction,” says Boice. “We have overcome those lines and the political territorial sites.”

The Valley leads the race nationwide in getting smart about its highways. It was one of four metropolitan areas in the nation selected by the Feds to ramp up a model intelligent transportation system. For Phoenix commuters, the $35.5 million project already translates into faster commutes, fewer accidents, more efficient fuel consumption and less pollution. For example, along one major corridor, the average trip speed was improved 8 percent, the average delay time was reduced by one minute and the average number of vehicle stops was reduced by 3.6 percent.

The availability of real-time travel information is probably one of the most visible benefits the average driver will notice. Using a coordinated system, all public employees across the state, from the National Weather Service to the Arizona Department of Public Safety, can enter information about road conditions into a central database, from accidents and weather to construction and special events. Motorists can access this information in a number of different ways: via telephone, radio, television, computer, palmtop, pager, cell phone, e-mail and kiosk. The carless can even pinpoint exact bus ETA’s at some locations through the Valley.

Less apparent to the average driver is the fact that, wherever possible, AZTech tied together existing infrastructure, including computer systems, fiber optic networks, traffic signals and communication equipment. All the traffic centers for the state, county, municipalities, transit authorities and emergency services coordinate traffic signals and manage incidents. When an accident shuts down part of a freeway or surface street, the effected traffic center notifies the appropriate emergency response team and diverts traffic. More than 150 miles worth of “smart corridors” have been outfitted with sensors and other gadgets to keep traffic flowing more smoothly. Traffic signals along arterial streets have been coordinated so that their cycles link to traffic flow rather than city limits.

Sitting at a red light on a dead street in the middle of the night might be a thing of the past, if Dr. Pitu Mirchandani, professor of systems and industrial engineering at the University of Arizona, has his way. Plopped somewhere in the Valley is a smart traffic light (he won’t say where) which uses in-street detectors and cameras to monitor and predict the flow of traffic. He views his prototype as a kind of electronic cop, scanning traffic upstream and downstream before deciding where to direct it.

Even further down the road is the smart car Mirchandani and his colleagues demonstrated more than a year ago on an unopened stretch of Highway 51. The team developed a fully automated automobile by fitting a 1989 Chevy with off-the-shelf radar and camera equipment. Dubbed the VISTA car–or Vehicle Intelligent System for Transport Automation–its on-board computer uses cameras and radar to gauge its position vis-a-vis other cars and the lane.

“Eventually every car will have this,” he predicts. “It will be safer and you can get more cars traveling in a platoon, as opposed to having some cars 100 yards away and some cars tailgating. It will be like a train on the highway.”

Of course, people who otherwise indulge in distractions like talking on a cell phone might feel funny about turning control of their steering wheel to a computer. There’s also a chicken and an egg question of deploying this technology; as in which will come first, the smart highway or the smart car? For Valley residents driving their life away, it’s no question that the road most efficiently traveled is the smart choice.

The ADOT Freeway Management System, which shows conditions, closures and even real-time images, can be accessed at http://www.azfms.com.  Road information can be accessed via telephone at 1-888-411-ROAD.

“Smart Highways” originally appeared in Phoenix Magazine.