Traffic Monitoring Helps Anchorage Keep Pace

Freight Volume to Double by 2020

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Jeffrey Miller, Ph.D., is assistant professor in the Computer Systems Engineering department at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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Posted: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 11:46 am | Updated: 4:58 pm, Thu May 15, 2014.

Wireless tracking devices - some smaller than a pager - are helping take a bite out of traffic delays in Anchorage, Alaska, where area drivers spend an estimated 182,000 hours per year traversing the city's three busiest intersections during the afternoon rush hour alone. The cost of that delay, according to transit officials, is $3.1 million.

Factor in the rising cost of fuel, a population growth rate that's one of the fastest in the nation, and an international port that expects freight volume to double by 2020, and ... well, you get the picture.

Things are only getting more challenging for the folks at Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions, a multiagency team that works together to plan and fund the transportation system in the Anchorage area.

Lately, AMATS is getting some help from the University of Alaska Anchorage School of Engineering, where Prof. Jeffrey Miller, Ph.D., is working on the latest high-tech gadgetry to tackle the growing traffic congestion problems in Anchorage and beyond. He and AMATS Freight Mobility Coordinator Teresa Brewer gave a presentation at the American Planning Association's National Planning Conference in Boston last week.

Miller said the UAA system provides more comprehensive real-time data than other low- and high-tech systems because those systems can only gather traffic data at discrete locations - single points along various routes.

"Now we're at a point where we can also gather data in continuous flow using tracking technologies like GPS, reporting back through a central server over the cellular infrastructure, or some other wireless infrastructure," Miller said.

One of these methods uses a compact GPS tracking device that is plugged directly into a vehicle's Onboard Diagnostic (OBD) port and transmits data as the vehicle travels down the busiest freight routes in the AMATS area. ODB ports have been required on all vehicles manufactured in the U.S. since 1996. Through this port, the tracking device can access information about the vehicle's speed, fuel consumption and RPMs, among other data that varies depending on the vehicle make and model. That information, and the vehicle's exact location based on GPS, is transmitted across the wireless network at regular intervals.

"It sends the data back to a central computer farm, hosted at the university, where the data is aggregated to perform queries and ultimately provide the municipality with information about the flow of traffic," Miller said. Real-time data flows continuously to an online mapping system that color codes the routes depending on the level of traffic on any given segment.

While the Anchorage network is currently small - only 65 vehicles are equipped with tracking devices so far - the data provided is already paying dividends. Free and open-source, the UAA system is being used by other universities and departments of transportation around the world, Miller said.

One downside to the system is that each of the tracking devices requires a cell-phone data plan that costs about $16 per month. In the future, Miller hopes a less expensive wireless option emerges.

The tracking devices are installed on the vehicles of volunteers who travel regularly down the main arterials in the Anchorage area. These include "Share-A-Ride" carpool participants, delivery freight haulers and university students.

Miller said concerns about privacy have been addressed. The device reports its data with a unique identification number that is not associated with a particular vehicle. The location of the device is not exposed to the public as the online maps contain only an aggregation of data from numerous devices.

Also in development is a cell phone application that essentially serves the same purpose as the tracking devices, except they can only report the location of the phone without any vehicle data. Speed and direction are calculated by the time and distance between two reported data points. A few of these are currently in service, Miller said.

Brewer said the data gathered by Miller's system is used to identify and mitigate areas of delay inside the AMATS region. "The real-time data helps us develop transportation policy, design standards, road networks and forecasts for freight distribution and land uses based on actual traffic movements versus personal diaries or surveys," Brewer said.

Since 80 to 90 percent of Alaska's freight travels through the Anchorage area via the Port of Anchorage and the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Brewer said transportation planning in the crowded Matanuska-Susitna Borough corridor is essential, especially in light of a planned port expansion project and rapid population growth that is projected to continue into the next decade.

In the future, Brewer said AMATS plans to partner with the Alaska Trucking Association to put transceivers into more freightliners to help establish local, regional and statewide strategic freight priorities for transportation system development funding. And, she said, the organization hopes Miller's cell-phone application can be implemented on a larger scale to provide real-time tracking of traffic delays and congestion to freight stakeholders, the military, governmental and tribal agencies and the general public.

Among other possible applications of the system, Brewer and Miller said it could be used for:

• Tracking snow plows and providing online maps that show the roads that have already been plowed in real-time;

• Determining the fastest paths between key locations and notifying drivers of the fastest way to get to their desired destinations;

• Identifying areas that would benefit most from traffic signal timing to reduce freight delays.

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  • Jeff posted at 2:08 am on Sun, Jul 24, 2011.

    Jeff Posts: 1


    Your comment is only partially correct. The devices that we used in this study that are shown in the article are for passenger vehicles. They attach to a passenger vehicle's OBD port and will not work directly on medium- or heavy-duty trucks. There are adapters that can be used for J1939 and other connectors though, as long as the protocol that is used for retrieving speed is the same. Even if it is not, the only real piece of data I need from this device is location and time, so as long as the vehicle is able to power the device, I will still be able to get the location of the vehicle transmitted through the cellular network. From the location and time, I determine the amount of time it takes to traverse road segments.

    As to your comment on snow plows, the response is the same. As long as I am able to get power, the device will work as I need. With snow plows, we are also looking at determining when the blade is down. That will most likely be determined through some sensor or other means outside of the diagnostic port.

    For your third comment, we have been gathering data for almost 2 years now. Studies that I have conducted have shown the accuracy to be greater than 95%. I'm not sure what evidence you have to support your claim that "ignoring the travel patterns of medium-heavy duty trucks will be ambiguous at best." If you have any data or explanation to defend that comment, I would be happy to address it.

  • Curt Shaw posted at 11:15 am on Wed, Apr 27, 2011.

    Curt Shaw Posts: 1

    While this outwardly seems ideal for its intended purpose, the wireless tracking devices identified in this article are unusable on medium to heavy truck applications. The federally mandated OBD style Data-Link connectors and diagnostic communication architecture mentioned applies only to the automotive/light-truck market.

    The idea that this device can be used on snow plows is misleading, as it pertains only to light-duty truck mounted snow plows.

    Additionally, if you are concerned with traffic flow in or around a specific area or highway system, ignoring the travel patterns of medium-heavy duty trucks will be ambiguous at best.


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