Move Over Weather Channel: Traffic TV To Cover Local Commuting Conditions

May 26, 1998

The morning routine for many people includes a glance at the Weather Channel to get the local forecast before heading out the door to face a commute that might be clear sailing or a stormy snarl. Beginning June 1, a new University of Washington cable television channel will broadcast real-time, rush-hour traffic updates so viewers can get a forecast of their morning commute along with the weather.

Traffic TV will provide live video footage of various traffic choke points around Seattle as well as estimated travel speeds along area highways, making it the first televised traffic information broadcast in the nation to offer both of these services. Continuous updates will air morning and evening rush hours, reaching 60,000 homes initially and an estimated 550,000 homes in greater Seattle by late summer.

Traffic TV is one of many new transportation technologies being deployed in the Puget Sound region over the next several months as part of an $18 million, public-private initiative dubbed Smart Trek. Seattle -- along with New York, Phoenix and San Antonio -- was selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation to experiment using the information superhighway to improve transportation efficiency and reduce travel times on old-fashioned asphalt highways.

"The overall goal of Smart Trek is to demonstrate how information technology can help people make smarter, faster travel decisions," explains Dan Dailey, an associate professor of electrical engineering and transportation technology expert at the UW. "The beauty of Traffic TV is that eventually it will be available to almost anyone in Seattle with a cable hookup, and it doesn't require any special technology or expertise."

Seattle ranks among the top 10 U.S. metropolitan areas in traffic congestion, with population and employment projected to swell another 50 percent by 2020. To keep pace with growth in vehicle usage nationwide, transportation experts estimate that 34 percent more highway capacity will be needed at a cost of $150 billion. Installing intelligent transportation system technology, on the other hand, would cost only $10 billion and could reduce the demand for new highways by at least two-thirds, experts claim.

The key, says Dailey, is to give people timely, useful traffic information so they choose a route, schedule and mode of transportation that reduces congestion and travel times as much as possible. To make that happen, UW engineers developed an Intelligent Transportation System network to gather traffic data from various sources and make it available in a format that promotes transportation efficiency. For example, the UW network collects and processes data from Washington Department of Transportation highway sensors to measure congestion and estimate travel speeds on area highways. This information then can be made available via Traffic TV or other outlets to aid the public in making travel decisions.

Traffic TV is a collaborative effort between the Washington State Department of Transportation and the UW College of Engineering's Intelligent Transportation Systems program. The service will broadcast a sequence of real-time traffic condition updates for Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle, the I-90 bridge, the State Route 520 bridge and I-405 in Bellevue. Each update will display live video footage of highway choke points as well as a color-coded map indicating estimated travel speeds in HOV lanes and in regular lanes. Taking advantage of experimental data-dissemination technology being pioneered on, Traffic TV is the only traffic information broadcast in the nation offering both live video footage and real-time travel speed information, Dailey says.

In addition to Traffic TV, the UW is collaborating with King County Transit Division to develop two Smart Trek projects for aiding bus riders. The first, Bus View, is an Internet-based application that displays a map showing real-time locations of all county Metro buses. This gives users a heads-up, before leaving their home or office, if a bus is running unusually early or late. Bus View will be available for downloading free from the World Wide Web by late June.

The second project, Transit Watch, involves the use of airport-style computer terminals to display the estimated arrival times of Metro buses to major stops. The terminals are being installed initially at transit centers in Bellevue and at Northgate. A similar system tested in London prompted a steep rise in commuter satisfaction even though there was no change in the transit system's on-time performance, according to Dailey.

"The difference was in the users' stress level. They didn't have to sit at the stop and wonder if they'd just missed their bus or if it was late and they were going to miss their connection," Dailey explains. "This is what Smart Trek is all about: using technology to provide information that helps people make better travel decisions and reduce stress."

University of Washington

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