Texas cities testing innovate transportation projects
Editor’s Note: This is a two-part article on our follow-up with cities that presented innovative transportation pilot projects at the Texas Mobility Summit 2.0 in 2016. This week we will cover the city of Bryan, city of College Station and the city of Arlington. Next week we will cover the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, city of Corpus Christi and the city of San Antonio.
In October 2016, the Texas Innovation Alliance invited cities from around Texas to attend the Texas Mobility Summit 2.0 in Houston. This alliance formed in 2016 and is comprised of an action network of local, regional and state agencies and research institutions that are committed to addressing community mobility challenges by creating a platform for innovation. The October summit brought together nine teams representing 10 cities and three research institutions. Each team introduced pilot programs, challenges and goals, and outcomes for their city.
One of the teams represents Bryan-College Station and serving on that team is Daniel Rudge, executive director of the Bryan/College Station Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). According to Rudge, the team implemented three pilot projects last year.
The first project was to work with a software package that allows human service agencies throughout Brazos County to share transport efforts, eliminate duplicated trips and cut down on mileage, gas and manpower. “If an agency like the American Heart Association is traveling to an area to pick up individuals for an appointment or shopping trip, the agency enters their trip information into the software package and it provides them with the quickest pick-up and drop-off route for the passengers,” said Rudge. The main draw of the software is that it also allows one agency to not only pick up its passengers, but it also shows clients located in the same area, that are with other agencies, that need to be picked-up too. “We ran into one snag,” said Rudge. “We were led to believe that once the trip information was inserted by an agency, the software would automatically match clients from other agencies that needed to be picked up in that location too. We discovered that an actual person has to manually do the route matching so we are going to need a master scheduler to go through and actually do all of the trip matching for us.”
The people who are transported are low-income or they are mentally or physically disabled and have no consistent transportation. The agencies take their clients to regularly scheduled medical appointments, jobs or on casual trips that are called in 24-hours ahead of time. “The idea is to only use the program in Brazos County, but once we are well-educated on this software, we will then expand to all of the counties that are served by our council of governments,” said Rudge.
The second project is called “Make Every Day Game Day.” During football season, there are roughly 115,000 people heading to or from Kyle Field, according to Rudge. “People going to the game are normally staggered, but when the game ends, there is a mass exodus,” said Rudge. The city of College Station, Texas A&M University and city of Bryan have invested funding in intelligent transportation such as cameras to see where there are traffic bottlenecks and alleviate them by changing the timing of traffic lights or relay information to police while they direct traffic. There is a telephone application called Destination Aggieland that shares where the congested areas are located and which parking lots have vacant spots. “There are over 64,000 students at Texas A&M and College Station and when you include faculty and staff, that makes us the state’s fourth largest downtown population, Monday through Friday,” said Rudge. The intelligent transportation is used in the morning and afternoon and there has even been a proposal to the university to stagger the start of class times throughout the day.
The final project is to conduct a regional mobility symposium. “We are getting ready to distribute a survey that asks, ‘what level of traffic congestion are you willing to accept to the point where it doesn’t impact your quality of life?'” said Rudge. “The second part of the question then states, ‘if you are willing to accept this level of traffic congestion, this is how much each individual household in the county would have to pay in additional taxes and fees to achieve that level.’ People will tell me they don’t want to pay, but they also say they don’t want to see traffic double over the next 20 years. We are asking people to tell us what is their trade-off.” According to Rudge, once the local governments are comfortable with the survey it will be posted on the website of Bryan, College Station, Brazos County, Texas A&M, the Chamber of Commerce, MPO and the Texas Department of Transporation. “Our population is 250,000 people and we are hoping to get a response rate of 20 percent for the survey,” said Rudge. The plan is to release the survey at the beginning of the spring semester.
Rudge says the project team would like to attend this year’s Texas Mobility Summit, that takes place next month in Houston. “We had considered cancelling the summit due to Hurricane Harvey, but decided instead to focus topics on how the transportation network plays a vital role during a natural disaster,” said Rudge. There will be discussions on how supplies and people can get in and out of areas when disaster strikes and innovative transportation solutions that could be used and implemented during a disaster. “After Harvey came through, there were about 100 people or more that decided to take vacation from work and go down to Houston with their boats to help rescue people who were trapped in their homes due to flooding,” said Rudge. “One of the things we were talking about is maybe putting together a registry of people who own boats and that are willing to go into places that may have flooded and assist with rescue operations. Or, even have a registry for people who have trucks, chainsaws and other tools that can be used to clean up debris if a tornado occurs. Those are the things we will be looking to discuss during the next summit.”
Arlington is another city studying transportation initiatives that could alleviate congestion on the roads. The city leased two autonomous shuttles for a year and has been operating them on off-street trails since May. “Rules and regulations aren’t quite in place yet to let the driverless vehicles operate on streets,” said Alicia Winkelblech, assistant director of strategic planning, community development and planning department with the city of Arlington. “We are running them on some wide off-street trails in our entertainment district.” People attending concerts or other large events can connect from a parking lot to the ballpark or stadium.
The autonomous shuttles started public service on Aug. 26 and Winkelblech says it is going well. “People are walking by and trying to figure out what it is. Those who ride on it are really excited and think the technology is neat.” The city, right now, isn’t looking for a mobility solution, but wants to test the technology and see how it works in Arlington’s environment. “We want to find out what the opportunities and challenges are because we are hopeful that as this technology advances, this autonomous solution would provide mobility options for our residents and visitors,” said Winkelblech.
The shuttle holds up to 12 people, does not have a steering wheel and runs autonomously at up to 20 MPH. But, there is an operator on it at all times who serves more as an ambassador to tell people about the city, project and technology. Like other autonomous vehicles, it uses a combination of GPS (global positioning system), lasers and LIDAR (light, detection and ranging) to navigate and read its environment, and will stop if there is an obstacle blocking the route. The shuttle reads a pre-mapped route that is added into its program and the GPS helps it locate itself in the world so it knows how to follow its map. The lasers help it identify obstacles in its path. “One of the challenges of this vehicle is that it is really sensitive and we have had to do things like increase our mowing schedule around there because if the grass grows to a certain length, the shuttle slows down because it considers the higher grass an obstacle,” said Winkelblech.
During major events, the shuttles will run two hours before and two hours following the end of an event. The city is also conducting public demonstration rides and people can sign up on the city’s website to take a ride and test out the shuttle’s technology. “We are part of the Department of Transportation’s autonomous vehicle proving ground designation,” said Winkelblech. “We have put ourselves out there and received this designation and we are ready and willing to test different autonomous vehicle technologies. The shuttles are the only thing we are testing right now but we are looking at a second phase of putting this on the streets somewhere downtown or near the university, but we aren’t there yet.”
Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams and the city council appointed a transportation advisory committee that has spent the last 12 months developing a transportation vision that will be presented to the city council later this month. “This will outline a vision and strategy for the city and help us focus our efforts in the future to transportation planning,” said Winkelblech.
Arlington’s Public Works Department also has a couple of pilot projects that will test real-time traffic signals and traffic data. The city is testing out a company’s information system that provides motorists real-time traffic signal status and red-light wait-time information as they approach signalized intersections. The city’s advanced transportation management system software enables the test-pilot company’s system to retrieve traffic signal information and display it on the motorist’s onboard display unit or on a smart phone. Nearly 40 percent of Arlington’s signals are connected and more will continue to be added.
The city is also partnering with a company by adding traffic counting and performance measuring devices at 14 intersections on the city’s major corridors. The devices collect traffic volume, speed, origin and destination and percentage turning left or right from any vehicle with a Wi-Fi device. This continuous collection stores and provides a massive amount of historic data. The system can instantly analyze for performance measures, such as travel time, average speed, intersection delays and signal synchronization performance. With these performance measures, city staff can set thresholds for operators to be automatically alerted, and proactive actions taken for efficient traffic management.