Transportation Systems Management and Operations

Managing smooth flow of traffic has been a daunting challenge in Indian cities, where not only is car use growing exponentially, but the scope of modal conflicts is larger than in developed countries. Indian roads are used by over 18 modes of transport, including non-motorised commute and freight options such as bicycles, cargo rickshaws and pedestrians.

A combination of traffic signals and road signage

In this light, even slight inefficiencies in traffic management multiply into huge economic and environmental costs in terms of delays, congestion and carbon emissions. A cost-effective solution to ensure smooth flow for all road-users (including pedestrians) is, therefore, imperative. Taking the cue from Portland in Oregon, US, such solutions would need to be more broad-based, inclusive of both traffic management and demand management options.

Portland’s Background

Portland has integrated its land-use and transportation planning for the past three decades, resulting in denser transit-oriented development and lower congestion. Moreover, the region does not have as many modes of transportation to worry about.

Nonetheless, car dependence has been high and rising, with over two-thirds trips made by cars. In addition, visionary policies to support active transportation have allowed bicycle traffic to increase at an impressive rate of 8-10 per cent while pedestrian traffic has also improved. Besides, freight is a relatively important part of road traffic in Portland. The Portland area is the third most trade- and freight-dependent region in the US, contributing significantly to the region’s economy. Hence, smooth flow of traffic is an important economic priority.

The growing concern of inter-modal conflicts between cars, buses, trucks, bikes and people began to be addressed on war footing about five years ago, when Metro and its regional partners embarked on a programme to manage and operate transportation systems at the regional level. The Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSMO) programme refers to strategies that aim to make the most of the existing transportation system. As Principal Transportation Planner at Metro, Deena Platman points out, “technology is perhaps the best solution to address some of these conflicts, as there aren’t enough resources and there are huge environmental impacts of large capacity expansions (building more roadways). Managing what we have more efficiently is clearly the solution.”

Strategies adopted

With the broad policy idea of optimising efficient management and operations of existing transportation systems, the Regional TSMO Plan was incorporated into the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan for the Portland metropolitan region. The plan, developed with guidance from TransPort (an inter-jurisdictional sub-committee of the Transportation Policy Alternatives Committee) and the Regional Travel Options Subcommittee (a workgroup made up of public- and private-sector interests), is a roadmap to guide transportation management solutions in the region for the next 10 years.

The plan presents regional transportation goals that need to be achieved through efficient systems management. These goals include improved travel time reliability, lower number of crashes, improved on-time arrival of public transit, reduced travel delays, lower consumption of fuel, and reduced air pollution and carbon emissions.

To achieve these goals, the plan highlights a set of strategies and investments (including intelligent transportation systems) around four broad areas: multimodal traffic management, traveller information systems, traffic incident management and travel demand management. These strategies are elaborated below.

  • Multimodal traffic management provides arterial and freeway multimodal traffic management and operations functions including adaptive signalling, transit priority treatments, access management and arterial performance monitoring and data collection.
    • A priority area for investments is updating signal timing. Clearly, a major trigger of modal conflicts in Indian cities, especially on arterial roads, is inflexible signal timing that is based on old traffic patterns. This problem has been prevalent in the Portland region as well, since updating old signal timing plans is costly and difficult. Hence, the region is implementing adaptive signal projects through phased investments, targeting high priority corridors first. Under adaptive signalling, signal timing adapts to real-time traffic conditions. Successful implementation of adaptive signalling in the region has been achieved in the City of Gresham, where signals along the East Burnside street were upgraded to adapt to real-time traffic flow, reducing average travel time for autos, trucks and buses by 15 percent.

Adaptive Signalling

  • Another focus area is the collection of region-wide performance data on arterial roadways including traffic counts, speeds, travel counts, classification counts, weather-based counts, and accident data. A concept of operation has already been prepared for this, in association with the Portland State University. The performance data is expected to allow planners to understand gaps in achieving the goals outlined under the Systems Management Plan.
  • In addition, a huge signal upgrade project to replace the old automated systems has been implemented. So far, about 11% of traffic signals in the region (located along the highest priority corridors having multiple jurisdiction ownership) have been upgraded at an investment of about $3 million. Similar projects are scheduled to be taken up in the near future, which would also incorporate advanced intelligent transportation systems (ITS) such as truck priority and bike priority signals.

However, TSMO is a broader term than ITS, and includes additional components like traveller information systems and demand management.

  • Traveller information systems provide current and forecasted traffic conditions. The information is relayed to the public using web, telephone (511), dynamic message signs, highway advisory radio or personal in-vehicle navigation systems. For instance, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT)’s web site, provides travel information. The website received over 23 million visits in 2008, and surveys indicate that over 80 per cent respondents alter their travel plans based on information from the website. Moreover, ODOT’s website is now being harnessed at regional level to place travel information from local jurisdictions on it as well.

  • Traffic incident management provides a coordinated, timely and efficient response to traffic incidents (such as crashes) that block travel lanes. Clearly, this is a huge deficit area in Indian cities, where incident response times are on the higher side. Learning from Portland, partnerships among agencies to coordinate response capabilities can clear blockages faster and reduce the likelihood of secondary crashes. According to a 2001 study, clearing incidents five minutes quicker can save 270,000 hours in traffic delay in the Portland metropolitan region each year. Currently, ODOT runs a Freeway Incident Response Program.

  • Travel demand management is a complementary strategy that provides alternate options to commuters which allow lower congestion and improved traffic flow. Without this complementary strategy, the other three strategies to optimally utilise the existing infrastructure and assets would fail, because traffic would grow beyond existing road capacity. Hence, travel demand is being managed in Portland to maximise investments in the transportation system and relieve traffic congestion, particularly during peak commute hours. Under this strategy, regional travel options such as walking, cycling and light-rail are marketed to potential riders. As a result of such marketing efforts, ridership on TriMet’s MAX Yellow Line in North Portland nearly doubled in 2005.

Regional approach

In addition to using a combination of strategies that target optimisation of existing assets as well as demand reduction, Portland’s TSMO plan is also unique and useful because of its regional approach. In fact, all strategies fall into to major categories:

  1. those for individual travel corridors and single-agency services, and
  2. those for regional programs and projects that require interagency cooperation The strategies and actions fall into two major categories.

A federal funding allocation has been made for the TSMO programme, and the allocations are made through the regional committee TransPort. Notably, fund allocation is directed to investments that are most needed for the entire region from the perspective of facilitating flow of traffic along corridors, irrespective of the jurisdictional boundaries. The investment decision is linked to existing land-use patterns accounting for industrial areas and high traffic flow areas.

Moreover, investments and negotiations with equipment vendors are made jointly by multiple jurisdictions. For instance, recently, City of Portland bought a central signal server and is working with other jurisdictions so that everybody in the region is on that central system.

All jurisdictions involved realise that it is important to manage transportation systems at a regional level instead of local level, because commuters travel across jurisdictions on a daily basis. This is the reality of an urban economy in a metropolitan region, and commuters do not care that asset ownership changes when they cross jurisdiction lines. Hence, to ensure seamless smooth flow of traffic with minimal inter-modal conflicts, as well as substantial cost savings, it is imperative that jurisdictions within a region join hands and collaborate to optimise their transportation systems. This is the essence of transportation systems and traffic demand management in the Portland region.

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About the Author

Ishani Mehta Ishani Mehta is The Urban Vision's Fellow at The Young Urban Leader Program. Ishani is working in Portland as part of the program. The program is aimed at facilitating knowledge transfer between cities known for their progressive planning policies and rapidly urbanizing India. The YUL Portland Fellowship is supported by Portland State University and Portland Metro. The Program in Portland was made possible due to the support of Nancy Chase , Independent Planning Professional in Portland and Architect Hafeez Contractor in India. Ishani has been working in New Delhi as an urban infrastructure analyst for the past three years. She has experience in writing articles, papers, reports and newsletters on urban infrastructure developments in India. Her areas of professional interest include urban transport, development policy and planning, civic infrastructure and basic services, and infrastructure financing. By background, she holds a Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics, prior to which she graduated in Economics from the University of Delhi in 2006. Ishani has held various positions of leadership during her academic life. She was the Co-President (Campus) for ShARE-Global, a students' organisation spanning over 20 campuses across the world. During undergraduation, she was the Council Member and Treasurer of the college Economics Scoiety.