Va. DOT getting smarter about congestion

Va. DOT getting smarter about congestion

A customized van gives the Virginia Transportation Research Council real-time traffic data that can be analyzed back at the lab.

Beefed-up van gives state government a look at how things are where the rubber meets the road

Researchers in the Old Dominion have adopted new mobile traffic analysis technology to reduce the economic waste and pollution caused by traffic tangles.

Northern Virginia residents spend an average of 46 hours a year stuck in traffic, studies show. In cities such as Los Angeles, Atlanta and Seattle, analysis shows that residents waste more than 50 hours a year on congested roads.

These figures from the Texas Transportation Institute have prompted many state and local governments to use Intelligent Transportation Systems to try to ease congestion by alerting drivers about accidents, road work or backups.

The Virginia Transportation Research Council, which is the Virginia Transportation Department's research arm, and the University of Virginia have developed a Smart Travel Van mobile data collection system to measure, record and analyze traffic patterns.

Collects data anywhere

'In order to do something about traffic, you have to develop strategies through research, and the van gives us the ability to see how traffic is really behaving,' said Brian Smith, assistant professor with the University of Virginia and a joint appointee with the research council. 'We have flexibility to collect data anywhere in the state to meet our research needs.'

The $100,000 van incorporates a telescoping mast, a detection system and video detection software.

Project leaders customized a cargo van, like those used by TV stations for remote broadcasts, with a 42-foot mast, a built-in generator fed by the gas tank, heating and air conditioning systems and a power distribution system.

Candid camera

Scientists equipped the van with the Autoscope Solo Pro MVP, from Econolite Control Products Inc. of Anaheim, Calif., for video imaging detection. Researchers attached the video camera to the mast to record passing traffic. Researchers in the van define detection areas for the camera to scan by using a mouse to highlight the areas on a video map.

The processor in the Autoscope stores the data on RAM and transmits it to the 600-MHz Pentium III PC with 256 M of RAM in the van.

The imaging software looks for changes in the pixel intensity to count cars and measure speeds. Researchers put all the information into an Oracle8i database to analyze back in the lab.

The software was written in C and C++, and runs under Microsoft Windows 98 or higher.

The van also includes a time lapse VCR and a small video monitor so researchers can tell what has been recorded.

Smith said the van is being used in several projects.

It is being used to measure the effectiveness of a cellular phone geolocator system being tested by U.S. Wireless Corp. of San Ramon, Calif. Researchers collect data using the video system to compare the accuracy of the travel speed information the cellular system is providing.

Researchers also are using the van to test traffic signal timing. They measure driver deceleration rates when lights turn yellow. Another project consists of analyzing how drivers behave in work zones and how they respond to warning signs.

The van may also be used to analyze variable speed limits as a way to curb congestion, Smith added.

'We look at this like weather forecasting,' Smith said. 'You need to have a lot of data to forecast the weather, and the more data we collect about traffic, the more we can model how traffic will respond.'

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