Imagine this: you set out to drive across town to meet a friend. Before you start, you pull up a map of the route on your car's navigator.
Anticipating the traffic expected during the next twenty minutes and the approximate duration of the drive, your navigator suggests a route that should be the least congested. You click to accept the route and follow it to your destination without incident. Once you arrive, LED signs on the street point you toward blocks with available parking and alert you to the nearest recharging station. Wasting no time circling the area, you slip into a free spot, plug your car into the post, lock up, and use your phone to pay for two hours of parking and charging.
This scenario is not so far in the future. Spanish companies, which have achieved international prominence in traffic planning and modeling, tolling, lighting and signage, and guidance systems, are harnessing the latest technological advances, working to create this reality in cities around the world.
Keeping it all Moving
As urban populations continue to grow, traffic pressure on existing roads and highways increases, although many cities in western countries have expanded their built environment nearly to the limits of what is possible. City and national managers are also concerned about pollution and global warming: urban traffic contributes up to 40 percent of a city's carbon dioxide emissions, and about 70 percent of other pollutants, such as nitric oxide.
In response, says Rafael Morán, Madrid's associate director of traffic and planning, "We first need to convince people to use public transportation ... And then we have to facilitate the movement of vehicles."
Adds Pablo Barceló, COO of Barcelona-based Bitcarrier, "The only alternative is optimization" of current roads, "to make better use . .. of the infrastructure that we already have," in order to avoid increasing traffic and to reduce emissions from idling. To accomplish this, Spain's Traffic Authority, part of the Ministry of the Interior, has invested significant funds in intelligent transportation systems (ITS) over the past twenty years.
Communications and computing power are already altering the way we drive. Cell phones and GPS navigators send out signals that allow managers to monitor the volume and speed of cars on the road. And the movements of buses, cars, and trucks are monitored in real time, with drivers alerted by their on-board navigators and by roadside signs to the best routes to take to avoid snarls. Systems like these, which employ the tools of the high-tech economy to keep traffic flowing, are some of the latest examples of ITS that are starting to enter the market.
In order to speed up city bus rides, Grupo Cegasa, headquartered between Bilbao and Pamplona (specialists in providing road signs called variable message signs and communications among those signs, vehicles, and control centers) is developing a technology to give traffic preference to buses, controlling access in special dedicated lanes. A GPS onboard a bus communicates its location to a central computer in a control center, which relays that location to traffic lights. The system monitors the occupancy of the dedicated lanes so when the bus approaches a signal, the signal remains green long enough to allow it to pass.
To manage the flow, traffic controllers, sitting by screens that show a scattering of city roads, need access to real-time information about the location and speed of vehicles all around the city. One of the most significant changes that supports this effort is the use of travelers as information producers, rather than simply information consumers. "All the systems [in use, such as mobile phones and GPS systems with Bluetooth connections] are generating huge amounts of information," says Francisco Cáceres, chief technology officer at Madrid's Telvent. And Bitcarrier is one of the first two companies in the world to commercialize a product that picks up on these signals to count vehicles on the road.