Chapter 1. Introduction and Background
Introduction to the Project
In 2014, every state department of transportation (DOT) operated some form of traveler information dissemination system. The most common dissemination mechanism is a public website, but others include 511 phone systems, social media outlets, and mobile applications. Similarly, field devices such as Dynamic Message Signs (DMS) and Highway Advisory Radio (HAR) deliver en-route traveler information. Often, the center of an agency’s traveler information system is a Road Condition Reporting System (RCRS). The RCRS is often the focal point, populated by manual and automated data and information feeds, supplying information to various information dissemination mechanisms.
While the potential benefits of an RCRS are obvious, there are also costs associated with the development, management, and support of the software system, as well as costs associated with the operator time to perform entry. The benefits and costs are impacted by many institutional and technical issues that operations managers must face.
This report presents a synthesis of current industry practices regarding the design, development, operation, maintenance, and use of a RCRS.
To complete this project, the research team began with an on-line survey of transportation agencies throughout North America to understand the uses of a RCRS and to identify industry practices that have delivered benefits to the agencies operating a RCRS. The first half of the survey questions focused on identifying which RCRS system an agency is using, how long they have been using it, and any significant changes made to the RCRS. The second half of the survey focused on the data received by an agency’s RCRS (how data is entered, how frequently the data is updated, and what sources the RCRS receives data). The survey link was emailed to 51 recipients.
Following the survey, a series of one-on-one phone calls and in-person meetings were conducted to hear first-hand descriptions of what the agencies consider to be the industry practices that most benefited their RCRS operations. The research team worked closely with the Transportation Management Center (TMC) Pooled Fund Study (PFS) members, sharing the information as it was received through a series of milestone deliverables. Finally, the results were compiled in this report.
Intended Use of the Findings
The intended use of this document is to enable agencies operating an RCRS to understand the approaches that other agencies are taking to overcome challenges that are common to most agencies operating a RCRS. In some situations, the industry practices include software modules that automatically ingest data into the RCRS. Readers of this document might consider deploying such modules based on the experiences and benefits cited. Other industry practices describe approaches for developing and managing software changes. Readers of this document might consider alternate approaches to software development based on these experiences. Other industry practices describe partnerships with other public agencies or the traveling public to assemble more comprehensive information. Readers might take these suggestions and consider similar partnerships in their states.
Background of RCRS
The Role of Traveler Information
Commercial and leisure travelers are impacted by various conditions, including: weather, road conditions, roadwork, and congestion. Any of these conditions can impact the safety or efficiency of trips. Traveler information delivers real-time information about current and future conditions, and therefore helps improve the safety of trips, increase the mobility of travelers, and reduce overall traveler stress. From the perspective of the DOTs, traveler information also offers operational cost savings by reducing direct inquiries from travelers.
A quick review of traveler information websites or 511 phone systems in operation illustrates how much the traveler information industry has changed in the past 20 years. Travelers may now access information from their car, from their home or office, from mobile devices, and from roadside signs. The types of information travelers can access has increased as well. In some states, travelers can access real-time information on toll pricing, travel times, incident locations, road work, lane or road closures, transit departure times, parking availability, and special events, to name a few examples.
The Purpose and Evolution of RCRS
For agencies operating traveler information systems, the central clearinghouse of information behind the traveler information system is often a RCRS. As Figure 1 illustrates, an RCRS typically fuses data and information from various sources, providing one comprehensive source to feed a number of information dissemination mechanisms.
In the 1990s, the Arizona DOT was a pioneer in the operation of a statewide condition reporting system, referred to locally as the Highway Condition Reporting System (originally Highway Closure and Restriction System) (HCRS). This system allowed manual entry of road or lane closures, vehicle restrictions, roadwork, road conditions, and a variety of other events that might impact travel. Developed at a time prior to widespread Internet use, HCRS originally used designated computer terminals in the DOT regional offices, allowing authorized users from around the state to enter information. Arizona DOT also operated one of the first traveler information phone systems, disseminating the reports stored in HCRS to callers.
Eventually, the Internet served as a catalyst to both condition reporting systems and traveler information systems. Systems that already existed (such as the Arizona DOT HCRS) were converted to Internet based system, eliminating the need for dedicated entry terminals. Other states and local agencies developed first generation RCRSs. Now, in 2014, nearly every state DOT operates some form of RCRS. Some DOTs have developed their own RCRSs internally, other states have purchased vendor developed reporting systems or have contracted with vendors or universities to develop custom systems. Finally, there are examples of collaboration in the development and maintenance of condition reporting systems. This project surveyed public agencies, asking which RCRS they currently use. Surveys were sent to 51 agencies, 22 agencies replied to this survey. Respondents from thirteen (13) states indicated their RCRS was developed in house. Respondents from nine (9) states indicated use of vendor RCRS products.
An additional survey question asked agencies how long they have operated their RCRS. Respondents in six (6) states reported they have been operating their RCRS between 11 and 15 years and respondents in ten (10) states responded that they have been operating their RCRS between 6 and 10 years.
Industry Trends and Challenges Impacting RCRS Use
The US DOT Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has supported multiple concepts that contribute to the national delivery of traveler information. In 1999 the US DOT petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to designate a nationwide three digit telephone number for traveler information. The three digit number 511 was designated for traveler information in July, 2000, with the contingency that the progress towards a national number would be reviewed in 5 years.
Following the 511 designation, a group of agencies, including the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America) and USDOT established the 511 Deployment Coalition with the goal of helping to encourage timely establishment of a national 511 traveler information service that is sustainable and provides value to travelers. Also, during the time following the 511 designation, FHWA provided funding support to many DOTs to plan their 511 phone systems. As a result, many state DOTs and local metropolitan areas developed RCRSs during the early to mid-2000s.
More recently, in November, 2010 a final rule (23 CFR 511*) was published under the Code of Federal Regulations that establishes a real-time system management information program. The final rule defines minimum accuracy and availability requirements for public agencies to make travel condition information available regarding construction activities, road or lane blocking incidents, roadway weather observations, and travel time measurements.
Like the internet, these federal initiatives have acted as a catalyst, advancing the deployment of RCRSs and increasing the state of the practice for RCRS use.
From the perspective of state and metropolitan DOTs, the 511 designation provided a common ‘brand’ that the agencies could use to market traveler information programs. Programs such as the 511 Deployment Coalition allowed for information exchange and technology transfer, especially in the early 2000s when many states were creating their RCRSs and traveler information dissemination systems.
One trend that has occurred over the past 10-15 years has been the changing habits of travelers, as cellular phones became less expensive and more popular, the percentage of travelers with cellular phones has increased. Subsequently, many cellular phones have now been replaced by mobile devices allowing voice and data communications. Beyond the devices travelers use, the content access has changed. Additionally, social media has introduced options for further dissemination approaches. As with any industry, the expectations of travelers has increased over the years, and State and local DOTs no longer only have a traveler information phone system to manage, they now have to manage phone, web, mobile apps, social media outlets, to name a few of the current systems.
From the perspective of managing a DOT traveler information system, the use of an RCRS helps to accommodate these advances in technology. For example, the same RCRS that many states originally developed for phone and web dissemination typically now supports feeds to Twitter, Facebook, and mobile applications. Nonetheless, each DOT operating an RCRS has to manage the software development, modifications, and hosting of the RCRS. They also must manage the users who are trained to perform manual entry into the RCRS. Finally, many RCRSs are connected to automated interfaces with other systems. These also require management and updating as other systems evolve. Therefore, while RCRSs have proven to be effective and useful tools to support comprehensive traveler information systems, they require considerable management.
To understand the extent to which public agencies have modified their RCRSs, a survey question asked responders if they have made any significant changes to their RCRS since it initially launched. Twenty- one (21) responses were received to this question. Half of the respondents indicated that they have deployed a second generation RCRS and have used the same developer for both versions. Approximately one-fourth of the responders indicated that they switched to a new vendor and/or software systems since their initial RCRS launch. One state respondent (West Virginia) indicated that their RCRS is a first generation system. Overall comments received indicate that changes are needed to continually evolve and improve RCRS. Specific comments received on the history of RCRS in some states included:
The survey also asked respondents what data is currently included in their RCRS. Respondents in over nineteen states indicated that construction activities, roadway or lane blocking incidents, and road weather observations were received by their agency’s RCRS. Ten respondents indicated that their RCRS received travel time information. Other data received by RCRS noted by respondents included items found in Table 1.
The use of mobile devices has created a world where travelers feel they can access any amount of information at any time and from any location. A combination of public private traveler information systems are often accessed from the home, vehicle, or mobile hand-held device. Not only do travelers want to access information from anywhere, but they want information to be as comprehensive as possible and not be bounded by agency boundaries.
Purpose and Organization of this Document
As a result of all the advances over the past 15-20 years and the increasing expectations of travelers, RCRSs have become critical to real-time traveler information operations within many agencies. While the potential benefits of an RCRS are obvious, there are also real costs associated with operating an RCRS. There is a wealth of information about RCRS throughout the industry. Many agencies have successfully deployed various aspects of RCRSs, and in doing so now have accumulated many lessons learned and insights that can be shared with agencies beginning a process to deploy a new RCRS or for those agencies considering expanding or enhancing an existing RCRS.
The objective of this project was to review and synthesize a compilation of current industry practices regarding the design, development, operation, maintenance, and use of an RCRS. Based on the industry practices, a further objective was to identify a smaller set of ‘best practices’, with proven success in delivering benefits when deployed. This document presents 49 industry practices for the design, development, maintenance, and use of RCRSs. From these industry practices, a total of 7 ‘best practices’ are identified, and 3 ‘emerging best practices’ describe recently introduced practices that are expected to become best practices, as the research suggests high benefits and identifies multiple agencies pursuing them. The intended use of this document is by agencies interested in understanding how other agencies have solved problems or how they manage their RCRS.
The document is structured to present practices from various perspectives. Industry practices are presented in Chapter 2. Sections of Chapter 2 present the industry practices according to the categories of traveler information define by 23 CFR 511, with additional sections to define industry practices related to transit information and other RCRS management activities. Chapter 3 presents the ‘best practices’, and Chapter 4 presents the ‘emerging best practices’. Chapter 5 presents a summary of RCRS benefits and summarizes the benefits recognized by the use of the industry practices. This research also included a survey of transportation agencies to understand their use of RCRSs. This survey and results is included in the Appendices.
*Code of Federal Regulations, Title 23, Part 511 – Real-time System Management Information Program [23 CFR 511]. For more information, see: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/granule/CFR-2011-title23-vol1/CFR-2011-title23-vol1-part511
United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration