Technology and “Peak First” or “Base First” Design

visualizationfinal_Page_09How will technology allow us to reuse existing infrastructure or make different choices in designing new infrastructure?

The focus of transportation related technology, commonly called Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), has shifted over time from a strong operations, management and systems vantagepoint to a blended focus that includes in-vehicle systems.  We are currently developing the region’s Long-Range Multimodal Transportation Plan 2040 (LRMTP 2040), so we will need to anticipate the possibility of automated – popularly referred to as self-driving –  personal and freight vehicles.  There are many levels of driver assist technologies before reaching full automation.  The scope of potential ITS benefits includes but is not limited to:

  • Benefits for public transportation;
  • Effective capacity increase for highways due to automated platooning;
  • Improvements in transportation safety;
  • Effects on intermodal freight, the supply/logistics chain; and
  • Potential of ITS technologies to both complement and substitute for existing design approaches.

The question of whether we should design for peak transportation demand, which leaves infrastructure underutilized much of the time; or, whether we should design for base transportation demand and address peak demand through ITS, is at the heart of the aforementioned list.  Highway capacity has traditionally been designed for peak hour demand which leaves large highways and thoroughfares underutilized at off peak times such as during the night or mid-day.  Public transit systems have typically had more of a choice concerning whether to design for peak demand or base demand.  Public transit systems that design for “peak first” see the peak service as the most fundamental product, while those that design for “base first” see the normal pattern as the fundamental product with the peak demand addressed by supplemental “peak” service.

In the past, Traffic Engineers heavily favored a “peak first” design for highways.  However several technological and environmental changes may allow Traffic Engineers to choose “base first” design and supplement peak service using ITS technologies such as managed lanes, reversible lanes, adaptive speed limits, High Occupancy Tolling (HOT), or in-vehicle systems that allow automated platooning of vehicles.  “Base first” design, supplemented by ITS, would have the added benefit of making it easier to comply with stormwater and impermeable surface regulations.  There is a real tension and trade off between adding transportation capacity and complying with increasingly strict stormwater regulations.  “Base first” design coupled with ITS technology could give Traffic Engineers more choices in design of new facilities.  When full automation (i.e. self driving) vehicles finally arrive in large quantities, “base first” design may become the natural choice with automation addressing peak demands.

What are your thoughts?  Please use the comment boxes to tell us how you think technology will change the way transportation is designed and delivered.

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