Northerners sometimes joke that there are two seasons: Winter and road construction season. In Austin, it always seems to be the latter. A 10-minute drive doubles or triples during rush hour, and in between there are flash floods, general congestion, and near-constant construction.
Luckily, help may be on the way. The Austin Transportation Department has teamed up with UT’s Center for Transportation Research to help alleviate city traffic and improve mobility. The collaboration is made possible through a $2.5-million, five-year agreement between UT’s Center for Transportation Research and the city of Austin. The goal is to combine the extensive data gathered by the Austin City DOT with UT’s expertise and provide commuters with information that could help them avoid congestion.
Some challenges that Austin faces are the geographic constraints of the city and unprecedented population expansion. Originally, Austin was planned on a North-South axis along Highway I-35, rather than the more ringed grids of older cities. As larger waves of people began to move here, traffic became a major problem. Because the city is surrounded by land that the government wants to protect, it is hard to build a ringed road around the city.
Another challenge is that Austin lacks the density that makes public transportation convenient. The South is traditionally a driving place because of the open space. Unlike Northeastern cities like Boston or New York, Southern hubs like Austin or Atlanta often sprawl out along highways. A major challenge designers have to face is how to fit all these drivers into reasonable routes as the city expands, and a scarcity of East-West transport creates chokepoints at the bridges.
These obstacles push UT researchers and the Austin DOT to think more innovatively, as traditional methods of public transportation or building more roads are difficult.
“We’re viewing it as an opportunity to think creatively,” says Jen Duthie, research engineer at the Center for Transportation Research.
One of the ways that the collaboration could help commuters is an adaptive signal control method. This will reduce time at traffic stoplights that have less traffic, in order to let more cars through during slower periods.
“Think of this problem of you’re sitting at a traffic light, and it’s red, and nobody’s coming. That’s really frustrating,” Duthie says.
Reducing time at traffic stoplights, analyzing video footage for safety concerns, and warning commuters of areas of heavy traffic are some of the ways the researchers are planning to help commuters. Ideally, Duthie wants a commuter to be able to map out where they’re going, figure out if traffic is bad along the way, see available parking spots, and find a bike or bus route right away to their destination.
UT is also providing an objective outside lens to evaluate the DOT’s performance in order to improve transparency. In the beginning stages of the project, UT researchers are basically functioning as part of DOT’s staff, but separate from the department, as they work to analyze the DOT’s data. Jim Dale, assistant director of the Austin DOT, says he hopes UT’s outside view will be a way to more efficiently use data and garner public trust.
“[This is about] facilitating the open sharing of data, which helps us increase the transparency within the city, and also helps reduce congestion,” Dale says.
The ultimate goal for Duthie and the city is streamlined mobility for everybody.
“I would love an Austin where people have choices for how to get around,” she says. “Or people have options where regardless of their income level, or their needs for mobility, that they have options that can meet those needs.”
Image by Matthew Rutlege via Flickr.
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