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U.Va. Research Helps VDOT Keep Traffic Flowing In Hampton Roads And Washington Metro Areas

August 18, 1999 -- If 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 the University of Virginia 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.

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.

"We’re working with problems of congestion, trying to move traffic more efficiently and safely without building bigger, wider roads," Smith said. "We want to get the most we can out of existing roads."

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 (motto: "Keeping Hampton Roads Moving"). The Virginia Beach center currently 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 – I-64 and I-264. Smart Traffic Center controllers monitor the camera images 24 hours a day, and can respond to traffic slowdowns or accidents by quickly 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 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, such as an effort in Los Alamos, N.M., 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."

One of the research projects currently under way at the lab is called 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. Developing algorithms to catch significant changes in the data will help VDOT traffic controllers know when to check out a particular screen.

Short-Term Traffic Condition Forecasting is another research project sponsored by the lab. Truck dispatchers often have computer systems that help them determine the shortest route from one point to another, based on distance. However, these systems don’t consider travel time, the likely traffic patterns at a particular place at a particular time. 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 be likely to be caught in rush-hour traffic two hours from now if he leaves in half an hour.

In addition to current research efforts, VDOT plans to use the lab in the near future to help train Smart Traffic Center personnel, especially through the use of simulations, Smith said.

A goal of Virginia’s Smart Travel Laboratory is to work toward a better quality of life for everyone using the Commonwealth’s highways, especially in the most congested metropolitan areas. It will also help VDOT and other government agencies with short-term planning – when to patch potholes, where to station traffic police, when to speed up traffic signals in one place to offset a slowdown in another.

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.


For more information about Virginia’s Smart Travel Laboratory, call Brian Smith at (804) 243-8406, or visit the lab’s web site at:

For more information about VDOT’s Smart Traffic Center, call Erika Ricks at (757) 424-9903, or visit the web site at:

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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