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Wednesday, December 19, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

T-Ops: Use technology to combat congestion

Special to The Times

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You think traffic in the Puget Sound region is bad now? Try turning off the freeway ramp meters, as was done during a temporary experiment in Minneapolis. The result: a 22-percent increase in freeway travel times and 26 percent more crashes.

Most people are simply oblivious to the proven potential for technology improvement in the daily management of car, truck and bus traffic. Some rush-hour drivers and enlightened government officials know this, but sufficient political awareness to seriously consider and install these advances is lacking. The cost would be millions, not the billions we need for new freeway lanes and mass-transit systems. Technology does not replace the larger solutions, but it does provide some needed temporary relief.

This affordable bundle of actions is called "Traffic Operations Management," or T-Ops for short. T-Ops means the coordinated use of technology, emergency vehicles and skilled field personnel from multiple agencies to keep traffic moving smoothly. It is well worth the training and hard work.

Research into traffic patterns is striking. Over half of traffic congestion is caused by accidents, breakdowns and resulting rear-end collisions. For every one minute saved in clearing the road, four or five minutes of congestion are saved. Ramp metering is worth 14 to 50 percent fewer accidents and 8 to 60 percent faster traffic flow on freeways. And properly synchronized traffic lights knock off 8 to 25 percent of in-town travel times.

Some new traffic technology can have just as much effect as adding lanes. Here are some of the pieces of T-Ops:

• Install video cameras on all freeways and major arterials, and at every park-and-ride lot. Make the pictures available via cable TV and the Internet so people can pre-check conditions and traffic managers can fix problems. Traffic sensors that count cars and communicate with computers supplement the video.

• Put operations specialists on duty in traffic-management centers to watch for individual problems, and to adjust traffic lights, change the messages on electronic signs, dispatch service trucks for breakdowns and alert 911 immediately with complete information when accidents occur.

• Have emergency and road-clearance vehicles ready to roll, with personnel who are trained to clear the road as fast as safely possible. Tow trucks need to be pre-positioned in high-risk areas. (This already happens on bridge ends.)

• Sophisticated computers and fiber-optic communications synchronize traffic signals and set the blink rate on ramp meters, under human supervision.

• Updated laws and police procedure should emphasize clearing roads quickly. Existing laws against dangerous or unlicensed driving should be enforced vigorously to reduce the accidents that both cause congestion and yield more rear-end collisions upstream.

• Drivers and transit riders should receive precise, timely, easy-to-comprehend forecasts of travel time. Computers would assess upcoming traffic and pass the information through variable message signs, roadside radio stations, telephones and the Internet. Regular measurement of the traffic flow should let drivers and elected officials keep score on T-Ops' efficacy.

Operations management must include buses too. Traffic signals can detect and pass them through more green lights. Bus riders also deserve to know precisely how many minutes and seconds remain until their next bus arrives. In some parts of the region, www.mybus.org (accessible from the latest cell phones) allows riders to arrive just before the bus, avoiding the rain or cold. This could also boost ridership — taking more cars off clogged freeways.

Some of this is already happening some of the time. The central Puget Sound region's young T-Ops is celebrated in professional literature and hailed by federal officials. Tow trucks are on standby in a few locations. The Seattle-Tacoma online freeway map from the Washington Department of Transportation (DOT) advises 22,000 viewers daily. Synchronization of traffic lights is growing.

But meaningful T-Ops requires constant attention and upgrading. It has to work on weekends, evenings after rush hour, and the middle of the night when trucks and late-shift workers are on the road. Not some, but all of the arterial traffic lights need synchronization. Not some, but all of the arterial roads and intersections need sensor cameras and active management from traffic-management centers.

Freight management — e.g., keeping just-in-time deliveries from suffering excessive delays in congestion, or worse, trucks causing congestion while unloading — needs as high a priority as passenger car management. As the federal DOT says, government needs to "make the daily, smooth operation of trans-portation systems a core mission," along with building and maintaining roads.

Unfortunately, many local leaders don't realize that T-Ops offers more hope for quick improvement with less money than any other available tactic. Last year's state Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation put the new revenue needed for T-Ops at $40 to $50 million statewide — the smallest tax bite of any recommendation made.

State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald has signaled a stronger agency commitment to operations management. Seattle Mayor-elect Greg Nickels has promised some new T-Ops steps.

But all transportation leaders must step up vigorously. Dr. Christine Johnson of the federal DOT notes, "In survey after survey, customers are saying they want to see the system operated to peak efficiency before we resort to costly construction measures."

"Peak efficiency" is not yet in sight, but could be if we demand all the T-Ops that is possible.

John S. Niles is senior fellow for transportation and technology at Discovery Institute, Seattle.

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