Don't wait for self-driving cars. How Florida and NYC are getting traffic moving today

Fri, 2016-03-25 06:00 -- SCC Partner

Traffic planners have a lot of hope riding on self-driving vehicles. Human drivers have a tendency to compete with each other; computer-controlled, Internet-connected vehicles, however, can work together to cut traffic congestion and reduce accidents. (Self-driving trucks may be able to make a big dent in air pollution too.)

Autonomous vehicles are still very much in their infancy, but Florida and Council Associate Partner Siemens aren’t waiting. In a test project involving the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway, they will use smartphone apps, satellite radio and other technologies to connect older vehicles that were not designed to be connected.

Vehicles in the test won’t drive themselves, of course, but they should still gain some of the benefits of autonomous vehicles. Traffic information can flow into the cars, directing drivers to the shortest route. The system could also warn drivers when they are approaching a curve too fast or warn a bus driver when someone is about to cut him off. And the data can also flow back to the master traffic control system, adjusting traffic signals in real-time for optimum flow.

This pilot project will be up and running within the next 18 months. As you’ll read below, cities don’t have to wait for future technology to make a difference in traffic. There are plenty of tools you can use today. — Jesse Berst

By Kevin Riddett, President of Siemens Mobility

Every time someone drives through a tunnel, walks to a bus stop or boards a train in New York, they rely on a complex transportation system managed by many different agencies. The city’s transportation portfolio includes 789 bridges alone.

The average traveler, though, is simply focused on where they need to go. They “don’t care which agency it is,” New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said this morning at The Future of Transportation, hosted by Bloomberg. They simply expect that transportation services will work.

But as New York experiences tremendous growth — “we are bursting at the seams,” Trottenberg said — its transportation systems are struggling to meet these expectations.

Transportation agencies are trying to increase mobility and keeps good moving through the city “in a time of constrained resources.” And as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Thomas Prendergast pointed out, that’s asking a lot.

With more than six million daily subway riders, more than ever before, “we’re seeing ridership that the system really has very difficult problems being able to carry because of the limitations on the system,” he said.

For MTA, the challenge is not just to repair and maintain, but to transition to infrastructure that’s smarter: to infrastructure made of software that’s already changing how we plan a trip, catch a cab, or find out when the next bus or train is coming.

“In terms of the biggest return on investment, it’s signals, where we upgrade from the existing signal system … to communications-based train control,” a wireless system also known as CBTC, Prendergast said. This not only replaces an "19th to 20th century" asset that’s increasingly becoming a liability but can add capacity even in the many places where adding another rail or widening a track isn’t an option.

Siemens has already shown in other parts of the world that moving to CBTC can increase capacity by 20%, and we were proud to bring the first such project in the United States to New York’s Canarsie Line. Since CBTC was installed there, MTA has been able to run anywhere from 5 to 8 more trains per hour. The systems also survived Hurricane Sandy.

But while MTA has a very good plan in place to convert all of its signals to CBTC, it has been estimated that, at current budget levels, it will take another 50 years before the effort is completed.

Thus, even as we are seeing a renewed focus on transportation investment, years of deferred maintenance has put not only New York, but the entire country, in a difficult position as far as prioritizing investment decisions.

Keeping up with repair needs on legacy systems with deep roots in the previous century are straining budgets, and “doing projects today that we need to do” isn’t easy, either, John Dengnan, Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said. “I don’t think we have a single project today that isn’t … beyond its due time.”

Then there is the matter of the future, a perspective shared by Stephen Garden, Amtrak’s Executive Vice President of Northeast Corridor Business Development. “We understand already what the current challenges are for the current system,” he said, “so the focus is: how are we going to design solutions that both accommodate service we have today and provide a platform for the future?”

Financing the projects that are needed will continue to be a challenge, but there’s reason to be optimistic. Moody’s has predicted that the United States will become the world’s largest market for public private partnerships. And the U.S. Department of Transportation recently created a new center of expertise to improve the regulatory environment surrounding public-private partnerships and to increase access to federal loans.

New York, meanwhile, could take some steps to advance more innovative financing themselves, Trottenberg said. Gaining the authority to use design-build financing, for one, “could save tens of millions of dollars” on maintenance and project delivery costs.

It’s a wonky topic, she added. But when “you translate it into: if we can do more projects more quickly, we can better deliver more for our constituents, for the taxpayer, then you start to translate it into something people can understand.”

Kevin Riddett is the president of Siemens Mobility business in North America, responsible for the company’s work across a wide spectrum of transportation solutions including rail manufacturing, automation, electrification, intelligent traffic systems, and service. He has an extensive background in the transportation industry, working for leading signaling and rail automation companies as head of Ansaldo Signaling in the US and Global CEO of Invensys before joining Siemens in 2012.

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