State of the Smart: Maximizing Capacity with Intelligent Transportation Systems

State of the Smart: Maximizing Capacity with Intelligent Transportation Systems


By Chrissy Mancini Nichols

Oct 30, 2012

This post first appeared at

We must think beyond building new roads, bridges and rail lines to get people moving.  Adding new road capacity not only is costly, but on its own it does little to alleviate congestion in the long run. At a relatively low cost, technology tools called Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS),can do more — improve traffic flow, decrease delays — with less.  The Chicago region has implemented some forms of ITS like the Chicago Transit Authority’s bus and train trackers that make transit more convenient for riders. I never leave home without first checking my bus or train tracker app so I never have to wonder when the next bus or train will arrive. More importantly, trackers have, in fact, attracted new riders, meaning less congestion on the streets and more revenue for cash-strapped transit agencies.  Chicago transit will debut another ITS next summer when it becomes the first major U.S. city with an open fare payment system for its public transportation network. Called Ventra, the new system will speed up boarding, reduce the need for riders to carry multiple cards, and save the CTA $50 million.

At MPC’s Oct. 11 roundtable, “State of the Smart, Maximizing Capacity with Intelligent Transportation Systems,” our expert panel — Stanford’s Balaji Prabhakar, IBM’s Naveen Lamba, and Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Steve Mortensen — discussed how these and other technologies are helping us think differently about how we invest in transportation and save real money for both government and people.

Three main takeaways from the experts:

Intelligent transportation systems maximize the efficiency of our existing infrastructure. 

For example, bus and train trackers tend to increase ridership and the Illinois Tollway’s I-PASS electronic tolling system has improved congestion, effectively adding capacity to the same road while saving drivers time.   

Balaji Prabhakar has proven that combining the infrastructure we’ve built with technology, like apps and incentives, can considerably maximize these assets. He has created a program to incentivize people to change their commuting habits, whether by driving during off-peak hours, parking a little further away, or taking transit.   Here’s how it works: People in the program download a cool app and then if they choose to change their commuting behavior on a single day are put into a lottery to win cash prizes or frequent flyer type reward points. The app also has a social network component, which has created a competition between friends to do activities that get more points.  Those points can be used to play games and win prizes. Programs are running in India, Singapore and at Stanford University.  All have seen congestion decrease, transit ridership increase (between a 9 to 20 percent mode shift), and in one case, the revenue generated from the additional transit ridership pays for the incentive program.  Now that everyone has smart phones, the program is simple to implement because GPS detects the time a person is commuting, if they’re carpooling or taking transit, biking or walking. 

Technology breaks down silos allowing planners to think of transportation as a system, not as individual assets. 

FTA's Steve Mortensen

Steve Mortensen, who is leading the Integrated Corridor Management pilot at the FTA,  talked about the value of using technology to integrate the management of various transportation systems — highway, transit, arterial and parking — along corridors.  In three pilot —  Dallas, Minneapolis and San Diego — the FTA is showing how ITS including — congestion pricing, transit signal priority (so green lights stay green longer as a bus approaches), ramp metering, and signs that alert drivers that congestion is ahead and where to switch to transit — saves money, time, and fuel.  This technology even alerts transit agencies to high traffic demand so they can add more busses or another train car to alleviate congestion on demand.  

The results are clear:  At the three sites combined, people annually saved over 1 million hours of sitting in traffic, 1.3 million gallons of fuel, and 12,600 tons of vehicle emissions from polluting the air. 

Technology saves money.

IBM's Naveen Lamba

Naveen Lamba described how he’s helping government agencies save money by using technology to better manage assets and repair fleets on demand.  Agencies have achieved significant savings simply by better managing inventory and equipment needs so stock isn’t sitting on shelves.  A pilot at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (LA Metro) revealed the potential for a 28 percent reduction of L.A. Metro’s $90 million worth of inventory, while improving performance and availability.  Another pilot is showing great promise to help agencies save money on repair costs:  By using a mileage based asset management program, sensors allow trains to “talk” to a command center so that maintenance occurs when it is necessary instead of the customary practice, an inflexible and unresponsive calendar schedule. Transit agencies in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Denver, L.A., Portland, and Boston are already using this type of demand based maintenance.


There’s tremendous opportunity to employ these and other proven ITS techniques to maximize our entire transportation network. Cities around the world are proving the real potential of ITS by implementing such technologies as congestion pricing (see Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s latest analysis), variable priced parking (pricing parking spots by time of day or day of week to manage demand), transit signal priority for buses (so that red lights turn green as buses approach an intersection), dynamic crosswalks signals and smartphone apps. 

If you missed the event, you can watch it on MPC’s YouTube channel, check out some photos on Flickr, or Twitter at the hashtag #its. 

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