California DOT unveils system that estimates time to destination

News AASHTO Journal August 17, 2005
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The California DOT unveiled a new system that will use 14 changeable message signs to advise motorists of their estimated time to several local destinations, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Although giving motorists that information won’t ease congestion, Caltrans officials say they hope it will ease some anxiety by arming people with information they can plan their commute around.

The launch is a pilot program Caltrans eventually hopes to expand.

“It gives motorists more information so they can make decisions on how they will like to plan their commute,” said Jeanne Bonfilio, a spokeswoman for the agency. “If we give them a travel time, they can say ‘I might want to take this route instead.’ We are trying to put travel information into the hands of the motorists.”

The system is made possible by 15,000 sensors Caltrans has placed on highways that measure traffic speed. There is a sensor every half-mile along affected freeways, transmitting information every 30 seconds. Officials pick key markers and calculate commute times based on traffic flow. Each sign contains times for two destinations.

Similar systems have been put in place in Chicago and San Francisco, with positive results overall, officials say.

Jack Gaines, who speaks for Caltrans in the San Francisco Bay area, said he believes the sign information helps reduce “road rage” by tipping off motorists so they can find detours before traffic backs up.

“People don’t swerve as much anymore. They don’t freak out wondering how long it’s going to take,” he said. “They can gauge or they can call ahead and say ‘I’m going to be late,’ because they know how long they’re going to be stuck in that jam.”

Traffic experts agree, saying research shows that better information about arrival times makes drivers feel less burdened. Brian Taylor, director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies, cited a study showing people felt less stressed on the Metro’s Rapid bus line when they were able to see how many minutes it would be before another bus arrived.

Caltrans adopted the pilot program despite past concerns that drivers might slow to read the message signs, creating some congestion. The test period will last for three to six months and if the pilot is deemed successful, it will expand to 120 freeway signs in the region, Caltrans officials said.

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