Thursday, December 07, 2006

Visions for Applications of Geographic Information Systems

If you are interested in some comments on a vision for the future of Geographic Information Systems, for video, try:
for audio only:

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Handling Traffic Emergencies

Handling Traffic Emergencies

For 18 years, I have driven to Indianapolis on a nearly daily basis, usually following I-69 to I-465. On Tuesday morning, December 5, there was another of the common accidents that closed the road southbound near Anderson. As I understand it, the highway was closed from about 7:15 a.m., when the accident occurred, until it was finally cleared, about noon. I came upon the stopped traffic just past mile marker 26 and it took over an hour to make it four miles to the Pendleton exit, where the traffic was being routed off.

I understand that accidents are a common and (at least for now) unavoidable consequence of traffic on our highways. At the same time, I wonder why they should result in such dramatic traffic delays when they are totally predictable.

If it were just for the frustration of losing an hour (although I have been in similar congestion that lasted more than 4 hours) I would just count myself lucky that I wasn’t involved in the accident and have sympathy for those who were. As a former law enforcement officer, I also know that there is more to do than just take care of the injured and clean up the mess. There is often an investigation that must be at least partially completed before the scene can be cleared. All of that, however, should still not result in the long delays that always seem to result.

Every driver, trucker, and passenger that came along that highway – thousands of them – lost more than an hour that morning. People missed jobs, appointments, and maybe flight connections. Some goods didn’t get to their destination on time – an important issue for factories and for connecting transportation awaiting shipping or trucks. Thousands of extra gallons of fuel were burned. Without trying to calculate a number, it’s easy to guess that millions of dollars were lost to the Indiana economy. And in spite of the accident, it appears to me that much of the delay didn’t need to happen.

Those of us in the public sector are not doing enough to plan for this kind of event. In this case, the big bottleneck was at the Pendleton exit. There was no one directing traffic there and so every vehicle had to wait needlessly at the light. There was also no additional traffic control in Pendleton, where the traffic was snarling as it tried to get through town. There were no signs at exits or on-ramps north of the accident that could have redirected traffic, even though the accident was hours old by the time I arrived. State highway trucks were used to funnel the traffic off of the interstate and to block any vehicles from making U-turns, but there was no warning that the traffic was being routed off until the driver was close enough to see the exit (not far if you are following a semi). That meant that many of the drivers were scrambling for maps as they approached the exit. I tried listening to the INDOT radio frequency (530 AM). It was inaudible but, from the few words I could hear, it wasn’t mentioning the road closure at all.

It was obvious to me, as I waited, that this is not the kind of situation that we would like to have happen on a large scale in the event of a major public emergency. If we can’t manage traffic after a single and predictable highway accident, what would happen in the event of a large disaster?

My purpose here isn’t to whine about the inconvenience. My purpose is to suggest a different approach. In an age of heightened concern about homeland security, shouldn’t we have public plans that deal with the details so that, should a larger crisis ever arise, we could respond with some sense of composure and order?

Here are my suggestions.

First, INDOT and the Department of Homeland Security should have a plan that thoroughly addresses any blockage of any section of Interstate Highway. Where will the traffic be rerouted? Who is responsible for the choke points along the detour(s)? How do we re-regulate the traffic control devices along the detours for the heavier traffic? Which highway or street departments and which law enforcement agencies should be notified and what are their responsibilities?

Second, isn’t there a better way to warn and reroute traffic before it gets into the bottleneck? How about portable signs at preceding on-ramps and off-ramps that could be quickly placed by public safety to help vehicles avoid the congestion? That would, in turn, mean less congestion and delay for those who hadn’t been able to avoid it.

Third, we need information delivered quickly to the motorists. INDOT already has the radio frequency. A few portable signs asking motorists to tune in coupled with a temporary transmitter could give information on alternative routes, expected delay time, emergency phone numbers, and other important information.

I’m sure our Homeland Security folks and Transportation officials could come up with some other useful ideas to incorporate into an overall plan. Executing those plans when the need arose would not only save a lot of time and money for Hoosier motorists but would serve as great practice for larger emergencies. The problem is too common and too costly not to address. We need some solutions and we need to put them into practice.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

$18 million wasted??

In light of Major Moves, in light of the fact that there are private companies providing the same service within 10 miles in either direction of this project, why are we spending this money?
Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


June 20, 2006

I wanted to pass along some observations about the state of transportation in Indiana.

The system in place is suffering from many of the problems of antiquation. Highways are too expensive to build and the life expectancy of our roads and bridges is embarrassingly short. I think everyone agrees that liquid fossil fuel energy sources are becoming increasingly problematic. Congestion continues to worsen. Personal injuries and deaths on the highway are a disgrace. And generally the costs of travel, in terms of dollars spent and loss of productivity are just too high.

I recognize that it is naïve to expect to have major changes of practice in the short term but I also think we have a unique opportunity with the construction of I-69, the first new construction interstate highway in the United States in several decades. I talked to some of the highway researchers at Purdue about this a year ago and they seemed anxious to explore new approaches in a number of concerns.

As you are aware, new technologies are allowing wholesale changes in thinking in a number disciplines. I would like to see the I-69 project become of model of the future in transportation. I think, properly presented, a number of federal grants could be secured to explore new concepts and, at the same time, help defer the cost of the project. With a lot of thought and a little marketing, this could be the highway of the future that would help Indiana make a quantum leap to position the state as the epicenter of economic progress from transportation, distribution and logistics.

There are certainly challenge involved with getting people to change the way they travel. Some have suggested an appeal to their sense of energy conservation. That might work to some degree but I am a firm believer that people modify their behavior in their own interests. They change because they save money or because they find the change enjoyable or convenient.

There are hundreds of ideas floating around on new concepts of transportation, but let me just offer a few:

- Consider a system of parallel rails for “piggy back” transport of trucks and autos. If vehicles could quickly and economically load onto rail cars near an onramp on one end of a long (two hours or more) stretch of highway and off at the other end for a cost less than the cost of the gasoline to make the same trip – if they could make that trip in a way that left them completely free to sleep or engage in activities they prefer to driving – if truck drivers could extend their range by not having to log the driving time for that segment – if the trip would be quicker than the drive – and if the drivers could be essentially assured of no unforeseen congestion or delays due to weather or accidents, I think many would take advantage of the service. Rails last a lot longer than roads and are less expensive to maintain. Vehicles on rails require very little law enforcement activity. Such a system would save tremendous amounts of fuel (indeed, the train could be electric or powered in other exotic ways). Safety would be greatly improved. Environmental effects would be mitigated. Fuel costs would be reduced. Travel time and frustration would be reduced. Everyone would win. The downside? It would take some investment from the state (which might be partially offset in the long run) in additional right of way and infrastructure. The motoring public would have to get used to the idea, although I would guess that the freight carriers would see the benefit quickly.

- Consider teaming with automakers to develop a system to supply electricity to automobiles in motion (similar to electric trains). Electric vehicles still have a relatively short range but, if they could get the fuel they need to travel long distances as they travel and then have a battery reserve to allow for another 50 to 100 mile range, they could eventually serve commuters who travel distances beyond their normal range and perhaps never have to be “plugged in” at home.

- Explore options for new materials and techniques in the construction of highways and bridges. Heavy truck traffic and winter weather conditions result in the replacement of highway surfaces on a schedule that has become unaffordable. There must be materials and processes that last a lot longer, that are designed for modern traffic, and that are designed for less expensive replacement when they wear out. We know that roads are going to have to be maintained and improved. Why not plan for replacement that is more economic in dollars and delays than we currently experience.

- Modern management information systems (MIS), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS), Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID), motion sensors, and digital communications have dramatically changed air travel. It is time we applied some of the same concepts to surface transportation. Every truck that is delayed on the highway is burning extra fuel and driver time and possible keeping goods from getting to their required destination in time to avoid production loss. I don’t know if anyone has tried to calculate the cost to the economy as a whole, but it has to be astounding. Better information is available. Let’s put it to use in this century.

- Consider designing and managing highways to allow for the foreseeable accident. Why should it be necessary to hold up traffic for hours every time there is a collision? Can’t we allow for separated parallel lanes so that blockage of part of the highway doesn’t result in total paralysis? “Local” and “Express” lanes help to separate traffic but they also provide a safety valve when delays occur. As mentioned above, congestion equals economic costs. They major arteries are built to speed traffic flow, they shouldn’t end up doing the opposite.

There must be thousands of people with better ideas than mine but it seems to me that we have an opportunity change the paradigm. Maybe we ought to think about taking the biggest steps we can.

Thanks for listening,