Intelligent Transportation Systems

Intelligent Transportation Systems

By Chrissy Mancini Nichols

Oct 28, 2011

This post first appeared at

Did You Know? New York City commuters can pay subway and bus fares with a tap of their Smartphone.

Improving transportation infrastructure means more than building roads and bridges. Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) use technology to maximize the capacity of existing highway and transit infrastructure to improve traffic flow, decrease delays, and give riders up–to-the-minute system information for a relatively low cost. At a 9:1 cost benefit ratio, ITS have a greater return when compared to traditional transportation projects, which have a benefit-cost ratio of 2.7:1. The Chicago region has dabbled in ITS with the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) bus and train trackers that make transit more convenient for riders, and the Illinois Tollway’s I-PASS electronic tolling system, which improves congestion and saves time for Tollway drivers. Still, there is tremendous room for growth. Cities around the world are proving the real potential of ITS by implementing such technologies as congestion pricing, variable priced parking, and universal fare cards.

Congestion pricing is an effective ITS tool to reduce traffic gridlock, improve the environment, and expand transportation choices to meet people’s needs. Congestion pricing gives people options: to pay a fee to drive on a traffic-free road, to travel on an alternative route, or to take transit. Minneapolis' congestion pricing program MnPass has been so successful in reducing congestion that the Minnesota Dept. of Transportation recently committed $17.6 million to extend the project. In Chicagoland, following the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) and Illinois Tollway’s July 2010 report The Road Less Traveled: Exploring Congestion Pricing in Chicagoland, the Tollway was awarded federal funding to study the integration of transit with managed lanes on I-90. 

Variable priced parking is another ITS tool to alleviate congestion by varying parking meter rates based on time of day and location, to manage demand for existing parking so that drivers do not have to circle to find parking or double-park, reducing congestion and improving air quality. In San Francisco, SFparkis a variably priced, federally funded pilot program that periodically adjusts meter and garage pricing to match demand, and collects and distributes real-time information about where parking is available so drivers can quickly find open spaces. Parking information is available to the public via a Smartphone application (and eventually text messaging) to help drivers find parking with greater ease and convenience. 

ITS also makes transit more efficient and convenient for riders. Universal fare cards allow transit consumers to use multiple modes without paying for multiple tickets. Hong Kong’s Octopus transit smartcard first employed universal system technology (you can even use it to pay for snacks at convenience stores) in 1997. In 1999, Berlin’s regional transportation authority implemented a unified fare card system, through which fares are collected by the regional agency and then redistributed to operating agencies based on monthly ridership. Even cooler: New York City residents can pay for transit with the tap of a Smartphone, as can the Chinese, because both have moved toward payment systems that deduct funds from the SIM card of a cell phone.

Chicago will soon be added to this list. On July 7, 2011, Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn signed HB 3597, a bill for “21st Century transit reform” that requires the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) to develop a universal fare card for use on all bus and rail services provided by the CTA, Metra and Pace by Jan. 1, 2015. And, get your laptops ready: By the start of 2012, the RTA must submit a feasibility study for wireless internet service on all buses and trains.

As we grapple to find solutions to our transportation problems and do more with less money, ITS is a lower cost answer to squeeze capacity out of the existing system without requiring major infrastructure investments. The region’s success with transit trackers and I-PASS proves implementing technologies such as congestion pricing, dynamic traffic signals for pedestrians, variable priced parking, and transit signal priority for buses (so red lights turn green as buses approach an intersection) will make a significant improvement in Chicagoland’s transportation system for minimal cost.



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