May 31, 1999
NewsHour correspondent Rod Minott reports on some new hi-tech ways to avoid traffic congestion in Seattle.
| NEWS BROADCAST: Well, it's certainly the case that we don't
have too many blocking problems, but below traffic, lots of it.
ROD MINOTT: Richard Gillman may be the commuter of the future. The 51-year-old software consultant uses a small palmtop computer to check on traffic congestion. Before leaving his home, he must choose between one of two major highways that lead into Seattle.
WOMAN: What's the traffic look like?
RICHARD GILLMAN: Well, it looks like 520's stop-and-go, but I-90 looks clear.
ROD MINOTT: The computer software and wireless modem download color- coded maps from the Internet that enable Gillman to pick his route.
RICHARD GILLMAN: There's 520, and those black areas mean stop-and-go.
ROD MINOTT: Black and red indicate heavy traffic. Green means an easy commute. The maps are constantly updated, giving current data on accidents, construction, and road closures.
RICHARD GILLMAN: I like to check the traffic before I leave somewhere because, you know, the traffic around here's pretty tough. You have a choice of which bridge to take across Lake Washington to get into Seattle, and if there's an accident on one of the bridges, you're way better off taking the other bridge. So if I can check in advance and see if one of them is jammed up, then it saves me a lot of time.
ROD MINOTT: The traffic information is provided by Smart Trek, an $18 million pilot project designed to fight automobile congestion. It's funded by the Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration. Kenneth Wykel heads that agency.
KENNETH WYKEL, Federal Highway Administration: As we look to the future, the 21st century, we need to find a new solution so that we do not build more roads. I mean, building our way out of this congestion is not the answer. We think the answer is intelligent transportation systems, and they will be the interstate system for the 21st century.
|Smart Trek program.|
ROD MINOTT: Seattle's Smart Trek program ties together a vast network of traffic monitoring technology. Much of it was installed by state, local, and federal planners over the past 20 years, with all the elements now packaged together in Smart Trek. It includes radio transmitters on buses, 300 cameras mounted along highways, and 3,000 sensors buried under roads. Smart Trek collects the data, processes it on a central computer, and then makes it available to commuters on the Internet. The data can even be transmitted on other high-tech gadgets, including a specially crafted watch.
SPOKESMAN: So this would indicate that at I-5, there's a level one incident southbound at northeast 130th.
ROD MINOTT: Dan Dailey designed the computer networking system for Smart Trek, and now works at the University of Washington as an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering. He demonstrated how a program called Bus View works.
DAN DAILEY: Here, we're seeing a picture of the university district map. As you can see, there's a fairly large number of buses in the "u" district.
ROD MINOTT: Bus View tracks up to 1,000 buses equipped with radio transmitters. The buses are displayed on a map on the Internet.
DAN DAILEY: The application itself has a couple friendly features. You can click on a bus and get what we call a progress bar, which allows you to actually see the progress of the bus along its route.
ROD MINOTT: Then, at actual bus stops, commuters find another Smart Trek feature called transit watch. TV screens display bus times, letting commuters know if their bus is early, on time, or late, in the same way monitors at airports show scheduled and actual arrivals and departures.
JOE MENTELLE, Commuter: Well, I missed my other bus, and so it's kind of nice to be able to have an idea when the next bus is going to be here, and if it's running on time or if it's late, or if that one was the one I wanted and it's early.
SEAN DANAHER, Commuter: Well, I find it pretty useful, considering I don't carry a watch or bus schedules. So I think it's pretty useful, yeah.
ROD MINOTT: King County Counselwoman Maggie Fimia is skeptical. She says she hears something different from other commuters.
MAGGI FIMIA, King County Council: What they tell me is they want more buses. They want to see not real time, they want to see real buses coming down the street to pick them up.
ROD MINOTT: Smart Trek also reports traffic over a cable TV channel that broadcasts maps and live pictures of congestion on freeways. Dan Dailey of the University of Washington:
DAN DAILEY: The TV display, the information on the TV display, is updated every 20 seconds, so it's truly real-time information about the highway. This is different than what you might get on a radio traffic report, where the information can be somewhat old because it requires a series of steps to get that information to you.
ROD MINOTT: Private companies are being encouraged to participate in and profit from Smart Trek with innovations of their own.
SPOKERSPERSON: Traffic, one message.
|Private companies offer their service.|
ROD MINOTT: One company manufactures a computer that mounts into the dashboard of a car. It's called Auto-P.C. Using data beamed over F.M. radio and satellite, it can alert drivers to traffic jams along their route. The system responds to voice commands.
COMPUTER VOICE: Intersection State Highway 522 and 68th Avenue Northeast. February 11, 1999. 10:13 A.M. Incident, slow traffic extent. One-fourth mile duration. Two hours.
ROD MINOTT: The big question is, will commuters pay for all this? The price tag on the Auto-P.C. is between $1,500 and $2,000 to buy and install. Subscribers then pay another $5 a month for the traffic reports. Tom Schaffnit is with Cue Data Network. The company beams the traffic data to Auto-P.C.'s. He thinks the public is willing to pay for his service.
TOM SCHAFFNIT: The feedback we've been getting from the market is the level we're talking about, $60 a year, is below the threshold of pain, if you will, for people. We think that a lot of people get this traffic service in using our data receivers, and then they will want to have messaging services, like E-mail delivery to the Auto-P.C. or to handheld P.C.'s, or they'll want to have alphanumeric paging come onto their P.C.'s and then capture that information. So we think that, you know, the bundle of services is where we'll make money.
ROD MINOTT: Richard Gillman says it's worth $60 a year to receive traffic reports over his palmtop computer.
RICHARD GILLMAN: I find it, you know, if I have some day where I'm going to several places around the county or something like that, it's great, you know, for checking, you know, sometimes, you know, "well, I don't think I'm going to leave right now. It looks pretty bad traffic- wise."
ROD MINOTT: But David Hodge, a transit expert at the University of Washington, doesn't think technology holds all the answers.
DAVID HODGE: At best, it's going to help us accommodate additional growth, maybe make it no worse than it is now for some number of years, but it's certainly not going to roll it back and make it easier for us.
ROD MINOTT: Instead, Hodge worries high- tech transportation tools used by Smart Trek may actually end up encouraging more drivers on the freeway. Already, Seattle traffic is considered among the worst in the nation. Since 1970, the population around the Seattle metropolitan area has jumped more than 40 percent, to about 3.2 million people. In that time, the number of cars has swelled 60 percent, to 2.8 million vehicles. Across America, it's a similar story. According to the Federal Department of Transportation, traffic has grown 30 percent in just the past decade. Between now and the year 2008, the number of cars on the nation's roads is expected to increase by 50 percent. The University of Washington's David Hodge says the money going to Smart Trek would be better spent on public transit or promoting alternative types of commuting, such as carpooling, toll roads, or telecommuting. But he says even that won't have a major impact.
DAVID HODGE: Again, we're talking about single-digit changes, typically, in the proportion of people doing anything. We're not going to see a reduction in congestion. The question is, how can we cope with growth?
ROD MINOTT: Smart Trek planners remain convinced their program will reduce traffic delays. Similar systems are now being tested in Phoenix, San Antonio, and New York City. Other states may soon see their own programs. The federal department of transportation plans to install smart traffic systems in 75 major cities by the year 2006.