Oct. 23, 2003

Benjamin Franklin once said, "We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." Who knew he was talking about traffic congestion?

Benjamin Franklin once said, "We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." Who knew he was talking about traffic congestion?

It's time to bridge the gap. For most of our country's modern history, there has been a schism between transit people and highway people. Advocates of transit promote buses and rail, and advocates of highways promote cars--and never the twain have met. Well, that's all about to change--and by all appearances it seems that the catalyst for that change is South Florida.

"Gridlock is already here in most of South Florida," wrote Sun-Sentinel columnist Timothy Dodson. "There is hardly a Sun-Sentinel reader who has not experienced it first-hand on a daily basis. The prospect of it getting worse is nothing short of a nightmare. The region's population is now about 5 million people. It's projected to grow by 50%, to 7.5 million by 2030. Try to imagine three cars on the road for every two today. In most of South Florida, Interstate 95 is as wide as it can be under state law. Interstate 595 in Broward, which opened less than 15 years ago, is already at 300% capacity.

"Travel times are increasing by 17% a year. Delays have doubled since 1986. Five years from now, if current trends continue, a trip that takes 30 minutes today will take 56 minutes. Drivers in Miami-Dade annually spend roughly the equivalent of a full work week--42 hours--stuck in traffic . . . The cost of traffic congestion is estimated at more than $2.1 billion a year."

In his six-part expose, Dodson illustrated South Florida's dire traffic situation in great detail. And he cautioned, "Don't be fooled by those who offer 'solutions' that keep the emphasis on roads and cars. Sure, the planned 'intelligent highways,' with real-time signs to notify motorists of problems ahead so they can take a different route, will help a little. But ultimately all they'll really do is tell people what they already know: that the roads are very crowded, sometimes a bit more than usual."

This place has everything

While intelligent traffic systems (ITS) offer much more than that, Dodson's point is a good one. South Florida, and by extension the rest of the U.S., needs a better, more comprehensive, long-term strategic solution. But what about transit in South Florida?

Transit use is on the rise in South Florida, and in fairly great numbers. However, those numbers are not yet large enough to significantly relieve the congestion on the roads. Why is that? Because at the moment it is still more convenient for average commuters to drive their cars to work. The area's commuter rail--Tri-Rail--is growing in popularity, ridership and frequency, but it still has a way to go before it can provide a practical transportation alternative for large numbers of South Floridians. Enhancing the region's multimodal capabilities will help realize that goal, and the plans are in the works to make that a reality. But now a different plan promises to take both ITS and multimodal transportation systems even further.

"The theme of the last two major federal transportation bills (ISTEA and TEA-21) has been to encourage both multimodal transportation systems and intelligent transportation systems. And these two programs have received a lot of emphasis, both in words and funding. But there were never any programs or initiatives where they tried to integrate the two," explained Dr. Robert Edelstein, vice president and national ITS director for DMJM+Harris, a national transportation consulting firm.

"In other words, these programs have very similar goals: they both want to make surface transportation safer and more efficient, and they both try to provide mobility options. Why not combine them and create a smart multimodal center that would integrate all of the ITS components, while facilitating the transfer between modes? It makes a lot of sense; everyone gains from this approach.

"For example, if you're driving down I-95 and you learn that there will be a delay of one to two hours because a tractor-trailer overturned, this might be the day to get out of your car and take the train. So, with traffic and transit information in hand, you come into the multimodal center and use transit that day to get to your very important meeting. Who knows? Maybe you decide that the commuter train is a great way to travel, whether every day or just on certain occasions. In either case, it takes a car off of the road. But it all boils down to commuters having vital, comprehensive information when they set out, allowing them to make an informed decision as to how they will travel that day."

The smart multimodal center, or Smart Center as envisioned by Edelstein, provides improved traveler information, traffic management, parking information, carpool matching and more convenient fare collection for users of the facility. Integrating components of ITS with the multimodal transit systems, the Smart Center concept is currently being put forward for one of the most heavily used traffic areas in South Florida, the Golden Glades Interchange.

Located in Miami-Dade County, the Golden Glades Interchange is the most complex and busiest interchange in the state of Florida. The nexus of many of the region's major highways (I-95, the Palmetto Expressway, the Florida Turnpike, U.S. 441 and Rte. 9), the Golden Glades Interchange also accommodates a 1,300-space park-and-ride, express bus service to the Miami central business district, the Tri-Rail commuter rail and county bus service provided by Miami-Dade Transit and Broward County Transit. By definition, this is the perfect location to capture single-occupancy vehicle travelers and encourage them to use high-occupancy vehicle modes.

Using the Sun as a guide

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is currently implementing its SunGuide ITS Program within District 6 (covering Golden Glades), augmenting its previously installed and growing ITS system. In an approach that incorporates dynamic message signs, closed-circuit television cameras, detector stations, enhanced radio communications and an ITS control center, FDOT also has implemented a program called "5-1-1," a service that provides real-time traveler information within the three-county region, as well as transit schedule information and traffic condition updates.

Fully supporting the goals of FDOT's SunGuide ITS Program, the Smart Center would provide a traveler information center (TIC), a satellite traffic management center (TMC), smart bus stops, a regional electronic fare payment system and ITS field devices. Included within the Golden Glades Smart Center (GGC), the TIC will provide real-time travel information to enable commuters to make intelligent decisions regarding various routes and modes. To do that, the TIC would provide kiosks, electronic message boards, website maps indicating regional traffic conditions, carpool matching services and electronic fare payment machines.

The TMC--also located within the GGC--would manage multimodal transportation access to and from the site. Supported by one or two computer workstations, the TMC would integrate real-time information from every mode to provide buses with signal priority at congested links and intersections, adjust signal timings at critical intersections and coordinate bus/train arrivals and departures.

Taking a page from the Tri-Rail commuter train stops, smart bus stops would indicate the estimated time of arrival for buses. An electronic fare payment system using smart-card technology would be implemented to help expedite the transfer between modes. Finally, ITS field devices would be installed to enhance legacy ITS systems to provide real-time guidance on secondary access to and egress from the GGC in the event that primary access routes are congested. While this is only an abbreviated description of what a Smart Center would provide, what will the GGC mean to the average commuter?

Most important, travelers using the Smart Center would have comprehensive information about current conditions to make informed, intelligent decisions about their travel options. But Smart Centers also will provide "transfer efficiency" or "connection protection" for passengers. For example, if a train is a few minutes late, dispatchers can delay the departure of connecting buses. Through the use of bus signal priority and queue jumping at congested intersections, schedules can be more easily kept and, therefore, relied on. In addition, Smart Centers would provide numerous passenger amenities analogous to those offered by major airports.

About The Author: Schurr is a New York-based freelance writer whose articles on transportation infrastructure appear in national magazines.

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