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.