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Can Washington Handle 30 More Years of Terrible Traffic?
Comments () | Published November 7, 2011
The University of Maryland's Michael Pack is devising ever more elaborate tech tools to combat traffic. Photograph by Kevin Koski

One sunny afternoon, I hit the Beltway again, this time heading toward College Park. No one seems to have any plausible ideas about how to reverse the tide of vehicles inundating the road system. But I keep hearing about a guy named Michael Pack, who runs the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology (CATT) at the University of Maryland. I’m told he’s engaged in high-tech damage control, and if there’s anything that can help us avoid total traffic purgatory as Washington keeps growing, maybe it’s technology.

Pack has blond hair, rimless glasses, and the pale skin of a man who probably spends a lot of time bathed in the light of fluorescent bulbs and computer monitors. He ushers me into the CATT Lab, where he’s doing his damnedest to help the region create what he calls an “intelligent transport system.” We start in a large, open space that has screens all over the walls pulsing with traffic data and images. Students man consoles, slouched in chairs and focused intently on their computers. It has a situation-room feel, full of purpose and energy, and I feel a brief shiver of hope.

“You can’t build your way out of congestion,” Pack says. “So you have to be smarter about how you use what you’ve got.” He has a computer-science background and came to College Park in 2002 from the University of Virginia’s Smart Travel Lab. Maryland wanted to start something similar and gave Pack the freedom he wanted to go well beyond exposing students to transportation issues.

He figured that students who wanted to enter the field would be much better prepared if they were engaged in actually helping develop solutions. So Pack’s CATT Lab started to build systems that could be used by states and industry to confront the traffic beast. To do that, he opened the lab’s doors to computer scientists and transportation specialists but also to students specializing in everything from geography to digital entertainment to graphic design. He’s even got an archaeologist. It’s the sort of multitalented team used to create hyperrealistic video games like World of Warcraft, only Pack wants his users to battle epic traffic.

Pack’s approach starts with the fact that about half of congestion is a result of too many cars on the road and bad road design. He can’t do much about that. But he notes that the rest of congestion comes from “abnormal” or “nonrecurring” events—such as fender-benders, overturned tankers, road construction, police- and fire-department activity, and weather. Even the littlest thing, like a tire or dead deer on the roadway, can have a massive impact, particularly when lanes get closed down. I-270 alone averaged 14 incidents per weekday in September (and the region as a whole often experiences hundreds on a weekday).

According to Pack, every minute a lane is blocked, the chances of an accident go up by about 3 percent, a chain reaction that can quickly lead to paralysis on the roads. And each minute of lane closure can cause anywhere from four to ten minutes of congestion, depending on traffic volume. “It’s really important to get accidents off the road quickly and to pay more attention to how we manage incidents,” he says.

That’s the insight that gave birth to Pack’s evolving masterwork: the Regional Integrated Transportation Information System, known as RITIS. The core idea of RITIS is to hoover up the gigabytes of real-time data about major roadways that’s pumped out every second by a multitude of agencies and transform that into an intensely detailed picture of what’s happening in Traffic Land at any given moment.

This may seem like an obvious idea—the best ones always do. Yet when Pack came along, the departments of transportation in Maryland, Virginia, and DC had detailed pictures of their own traffic but there was no unified view of the region. Each state’s traffic picture would more or less go black when it reached a border. Anything over a state or district line was another DOT’s problem. Everyone used different software and protocols. Coordination across jurisdictions among police and emergency services was ad hoc.

Getting agencies to give their info streams to him wasn’t easy, but in exchange Pack offered access to RITIS. The system is now tapped into speed sensors; traffic cams; signal timing; weather forecasts; computer-aided dispatch for law enforcement, fire and EMS; and more. If it’s about traffic, or affects traffic, chances are RITIS is assimilating it. Already RITIS extends from New York City down to North Carolina.

Pack taps a keyboard and pulls up an image of the regional road network on a big screen in front of us. It’s alive with information, using color-coding and visual cues to convey what’s moving and what isn’t. Pack can drill down into any incident on the display—to find out what occurred, what agencies are on the scene, and what actions are being taken.

Next: Grand Theft Auto for the good guys

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Posted at 10:30 AM/ET, 11/07/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles