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From The Editor

ITS: "We Could Be Doing Much Better"

It has been more than ten years since we first took notice of the then emergent technology of Intelligent Transportation Systems. In an Innovation Brief of December 1992 we wrote: "A group of technologies known as Intelligent Vehicle-Highway Systems (IVHS) has captured the attention and imagination of a growing segment of the transportation community...IVHS is not a distant vision. More than a dozen real-world operational tests of IVHS systems and services are currently underway and many more are on the drawing board..." How well has ITS fulfilled its vision so far? In a presentation at the Annual Meeting of ITS America and in a recent journal article, Philip J. Tarnoff, a respected figure in the ITS community and an astute observer of the ITS scene, cast a dispassionate eye on the progress to date. His conclusion: "We could be doing much better."

Boosters believe the industry is doing a great job. Skeptics conclude that little has been accomplished, considering all the money that has been spent. "As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between" concludes Tarnoff, and it depends on the criteria by which success is to be judged. ("ITS: Looking Backwards for a Midcourse Correction," Traffic Technology International, April/May 2004).

The success of the ITS program can be evaluated in terms of three criteria, Tarnoff suggests. We can look at the program's outputs, we can evaluate the program's outcomes, or we can assess how the public and the profession perceive the results. If we look at the outputs, i.e., the extent to which ITS technology has been implemented to date, the results have been encouraging, although not all signs are positive. On the plus side, electronic toll collection systems and traveler information systems have been widely deployed, states and local agencies are making good progress in improving their incident management capabilities, and there has been greatly improved regional cooperation. On the other hand, instrumentation of the highway network lags far behind: only about 30 percent of urban freeway miles and a mere 6 percent of arterials have been equipped with detectors and cameras, making highway traffic surveillance spotty and uneven. Also, there has been little progress in deploying advanced ITS technologies such as adaptive signal control, dynamic ramp metering and integrated freeway/arterial operation. Still, the percent of cities with "medium" or "high" levels of ITS deployment stands at an impressive 76 percent (40 and 36 percent respectively). Assuming a linear growth in deployment, 100 percent deployment at medium or high levels can be anticipated within the next five years, Tarnoff concludes.

However, if we measure the ITS program's success by its outcomes – i.e., the extent to which the program has contributed to improved safety, increased capacity (i.e. smoother traffic flow), reduced fuel consumption, and industry development – progress has been far slower, according to Tarnoff. Indeed, all the indicators of system performance have deteriorated since 1992, the date of the 1992 ITS Strategic Plan, he notes. Fatalities are up 9.6 percent; person-hours of delay have increased 44 percent; fuel consumption has risen 23 percent; and industry development has been negligible.

How about public perception? Here, again, the results are disappointing, Tarnoff concludes. In a public survey conducted by the Federal Highway Administration, two-thirds of all respondents showed dissatisfaction with the quality of existing highway operations. Tarnoff's own survey of more than 100 ITS professionals revealed a consensus among those polled that "traffic management activities have failed to live up to our expectations." All aspects, with the exception of electronic toll collection, received grades that were either mediocre or poor, reported Tarnoff. (Arterial traffic management, of which signal timing is the dominant component, received the lowest grade).

How come all this investment in ITS technology has produced so little progress in terms of improved system performance? Tarnoff blames it on poor utilization of ITS resources: "...We have done little to use this technology effectively... The majority of transportation systems are being managed in the same manner as they were managed for the past 20 years." While this may be true, there could also be another explanation: well-intentioned but simplistic ITS advocacy has raised unrealistic expectations concerning the potential of ITS technology to improve transportation system performance.

The latest example of overblown ITS rhetoric is the vision of "zero fatalities/zero delays"— a slogan which calls for "elimination of transportation fatalities, injuries and delays through effective use of technology," (ITS America News Release dated April 26, 2004). We must "make a commitment to eliminating, not reducing, transportation fatalities, injuries and delays," the announcement stated (emphasis added). Can any one take this pledge seriously?

Another example of prematurely raised expectations is the much advertised concept of "Vehicle-Infrastructure Integration" (VII). True, this technology has a potential of offering a powerful new source of information about accidents, traffic conditions and the roadway environment by allowing vehicles and road infrastructure to communicate with one another using broadband wireless communications. The returns from deploying such a system would be very large. But so far, VII is only a concept. Its realization may still be many years away. According to a recent report, there has been no realistic assessment as to who will build it, who will operate it and who will pay for this costly centralized network ("Using Technology to Manage and Operate 21 st Century Transportation Systems", NCHRP Project 20-24 (draft), May 2004).

Thirty-six years ago, The White House released a Congressionally-authorized report entitled "Tomorrow's Transportation." The report painted a beguiling picture of advanced transportation technologies "changing the city and the quality of urban life" (Tomorrow's Transportation: New Systems for the Urban Future, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, May 1968). Few of the ambitious goals set out in that report, such as Personal Rapid Transit, were ever realized. The current rhetoric of "zero fatalities/zero delays" runs the risk of similar unfulfilled expectations.

"It is important for advocates of resist the dangerous temptation of over-promising the potential effectiveness of their technologies" in order to minimize possible disappointments, warned Tarnoff in an earlier article co-authored with Steve Lockwood, a Vice President of Parsons Brinckerhoff ("Brave New World, Traffic Technology International, October/November 2003).

ITS America, are you listening?



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