Mazur: How intelligent transportation can refuel economies post-Covid

In metro areas across America, traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels as workers gradually re-emerge from homes and return to offices.  Boston Herald reports the city’s “soul-crushing” traffic (which placed it atop the Global Traffic Scorecard for worst commutes in 2019) has resumed in full force – and presented a major hurdle for the state’s economic recovery plans. With some of the nation’s leading hospitals, universities, biotech firms, and IT companies, Greater Boston is an example of city traffic that could be alleviated by a digital transformation of its public transit infrastructure.

Nearly every major American city has long grappled with the twin challenges of optimizing traffic flows and public transit usage. It’s a primary reason why cities have long sought intelligent transportation systems (ITS) to monitor, evaluate, and manage their transit infrastructure to enhance efficiency and safety. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) created the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office (ITS JPO). ITS applies a portfolio of advanced technologies – electronics, communications, computers, and sensors – to improve safety, efficiency and service, and traffic by using real-time information.

The DOT has initiated numerous programs to advance smart transportation and transit, including its Smart City Challenge that invited midsized cities from all 50 states in 2015  to “develop ideas for an integrated, first-of-its-kind smart transportation system that would use data, applications, and technology to help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.” Of the 78 diverse cities that applied, many faced the same pressing concerns:

  • Providing first- and last-mile service for transit users to connect underserved communities to jobs
  • Facilitating the movement of goods into and within a city
  • Coordinating data collection and analysis across systems and sectors
  • Reducing inefficiency in parking systems
  • Limiting the impact of climate change and reducing carbon emissions
  • Optimizing traffic flows on congested freeways and city streets

While the COVID-19 pandemic paused many smart city and transportation projects, it prompted the launch of others. In Chicago, where citizens rely heavily on public transit, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is piloting solutions to enhance operations, safety, and rider experience. Those include video analytics, onboard cameras, and routers, all of which provide real-time insights into occupancy across multiple vehicles. In addition, the CTA aims to decrease crowding and wait times while providing a safer, healthier experience for riders.

With the rollout of 5G and advancements in artificial intelligence and embedded systems, networking and processing performance can dramatically improve. For instance, 5G enhancements such as sidelink transmission are enabling peer-to-peer communication among mobile devices and vehicles. This ability to communicate directly without cell tower facilitation opens up a new range of proximity services: parking, lighting, maps, way finding and centimeter positioning accuracy, available with millimeter wave (mmWave) band deployment. Although this 5G enabler requires a high density of 5G base stations, the implications for transit and transportation systems are significant long term, especially to allow vehicle-to-everything communications (V2X).

Combining vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-pedestrian (V2P) and vehicle-to-network (V2N), V2X will enhance automation. Safety and transportation infrastructure capabilities could span everything from warning distracted pedestrians via smartphones to informing autonomous vehicles of approaching vehicles, even if they are out of sight. V2X trial projects have been implemented in Las Vegas, Utah, and Georgia, where an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 85 between Atlanta and Montgomery, Alabama, called The Ray serves as a proving ground for reimagining what a highway can be.

Other connected vehicle pilots (CVPs) are well underway in places like Wyoming, where a 402-mile stretch of Interstate 80 (averaging more than 32 million tons of freight deliveries yearly) serves as a critical corridor for freight and passenger travel. The CVP involves the testing and deployment of V2V, V2I, and infrastructure-to-vehicle (I2V) connectivity to improve road monitoring and reporting on this often dangerous stretch of highway. One of three locations selected in 2015 by DOT, Wyoming’s CVP may be key to forming an autonomous supply chain powered by smart, city-to-city transport and logistics systems that move critical goods such as food and emergency supplies without risking the lives of human drivers.

It’s not difficult to imagine the incredible benefits of autonomous technology in a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, there is hardly any aspect of society that cannot benefit from ITS. In addition to addressing environmental concerns, ITS can improve clear communications for first responders and enable them to efficiently navigate city streets.

Looking forward, cities must be equipped with both the technology and partners they need to create systems that not only work more efficiently but also help refuel economies, particularly those struggling to regain lost ground. Making that connection between the economy and transportation is the first and perhaps most important step.

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Steve Mazur is a communications industry veteran and serves as director of government sales for Digi International, a provider of IoT connectivity products founded in 1985. He holds a B.S. in Physics, a BSEE and completed an MSEE in Communications from George Washington University.