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Virginia's Smart Travel Laboratory keeps traffic flowing in metropolitan areas

By Charlotte Crystal

Brian Smith
Rebecca Arrington
Brian Smith, assistant professor of civil engineering, is co-director of the Smart Travel Lab, based at U.Va., which interprets signals from highway video cameras to monitor traffic flow. The lab works with VDOT's Virginia Beach Smart Traffic Center to help its staff quickly spread the word about traffic slowdowns or accidents by notifying drivers via message signs on the road and highway advisory radio announcements.

Virginia's Smart Travel Laboratory keeps traffic flowing in metropolitan areas By Charlotte Crystal f Brian Smith has his way, traffic forecasts will someday be as common as weather forecasts.

Research under way at Virginia's Smart Travel Laboratory at U.Va. will help drivers in metropolitan areas better predict traffic patterns and adjust their travel plans accordingly, whether to ease a daily commute or avoid holiday traffic, such as that expected during the coming Labor Day weekend, said Smith, co-director of the lab and a research assistant professor of civil engineering.

The lab also expects to help the Virginia Department of Transportation analyze massive amounts of traffic data piped in from the congested Washington and Hampton Roads metro areas. More effective interpretation of the data will help VDOT respond faster to changing traffic conditions and improve the flow of traffic.

Established in 1998, the lab conducts cutting-edge research that combines historical data with traffic-simulation models to create forecasts of traffic volume and travel times. U.Va. researchers also have helped VDOT design and upgrade its sensing systems and identify and fix faulty sensors.

The lab is directed by Smith and Cathy McGhee, a civil engineer with the Virginia Transportation Research Council, the research arm of VDOT. Other U.Va. professors of civil and systems engineering who specialize in transportation issues and a contingent of undergraduate and graduate students round out the center's staffing. Funding is provided primarily by U.Va., VDOT, the Virginia Transportation Research Council and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The lab is currently working with VDOT's Smart Traffic Center in Virginia Beach, which receives traffic data from 600 vehicle sensors and features a wall of 38 video monitors linked to cameras set up along 19 miles of the area's most congested roads, Interstates 64 and 264. Smart Traffic Center controllers monitor the camera images 24 hours a day and can respond to traffic slowdowns or accidents quickly by contacting a Freeway Incident Response Team and notifying the traveling public of the adverse conditions via variable message signs and highway advisory radio announcements.

"When all is said and done, there will be over 280 cameras, 240 variable message signs, and nearly 2,700 vehicle detection devices along 113 miles of Hampton Roads interstates," said Erika Ricks, Smart Traffic Center spokeswoman. "At that point, it will be nearly impossible to monitor traffic flow without the help of the information reaped from the efforts and technology of the Smart Travel Lab."

The U.Va. center receives all of the Hampton Roads vehicle sensor data and can pick up the signals from any of the highway video cameras, displaying them on video monitors in Charlottesville. By the end of September, the center also expects to be connected to the Northern Virginia Signal System, which will bring in real-time data from 800 vehicle detectors embedded in pavement in Northern Virginia. A video link with Northern Virginia also is planned.

While the purpose and potential impact of research conducted at the lab is straightforward, the underlying mathematics is sophisticated, Smith said. The math involves optimization models, search techniques, data mining, data analysis, and simulations.

Unlike other traffic research projects that stress the use of theoretical physics in predicting traffic flows, the Charlottesville center focuses on the analysis of actual, historical data.

"The mathematical models used by physicists to describe the flow of fluids are governed by immutable laws of physics," Smith said. "But individual drivers are not governed by physical laws and may make decisions that could not be predicted by physics. That's why we believe it's more useful to base our mathematical models on historical data. We're looking at what people have actually chosen to do in particular situations."

Other research projects include:

  • Automated Condition Monitoring -- Rob Turochy, a Ph.D. candidate in civil engineering, is looking for ways to quickly determine when the data stream from vehicle detectors shows something abnormal and important in the flow of traffic.
  • Short-Term Traffic Conditions -- Kevin Smith, a master's degree candidate in civil engineering, is working on forecasting algorithms that will consider travel time -- to answer such questions as whether a driver would likely be caught in rush-hour traffic two hours from now if he leaves in half an hour.

Studies in other parts of the country have shown that traffic management systems reduce air pollution, fuel consumption and travel times by up to 25 percent. These systems also cost taxpayers far less than building new roads.

While beach traffic this Labor Day weekend may be as slow and heavy as ever, someday in the not-so-distant future, Virginia drivers may be able to log onto their home computers, get a traffic forecast -- good for whatever time they want to leave -- and hop into their cars knowing they'll be taking the road less traveled.


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