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Environment, STEM

Will Tomorrow’s Transit Planners Reduce Winter Weather Hazards?

Source: The Weather Channel

Source: The Weather Channel

Exit Dion, and enter Electra! As cities and states are recovering from Winter Storm Dion that impacted both coasts and much of the mid-section of the U.S. over the last week, take a deep breath because….here comes Electra! According to The Weather Channel [Ref 1], Winter Storm Electra will begin to develop in the Midwest on Thursday night, December 12, 2013, extend into Friday, and then head for the Northeast this weekend with more snow and some ice. Air, rail and bus travelers, local motorists and those just trying to get to school and work on time have been stranded, delayed, or at best inconvenienced by Mother Nature over the past two weeks. Power outages, snarled traffic, and accidents have also been reported.

Rearranging Mother Nature’s forecast is not a possibility today and may never be, however, can transit planners improve the ability to navigate over, under and through stormy winter weather? That’s a good question to ask 7th and 8th graders participating in the Future City CompetitionTM Arizona Region. Working in teams of three, they are tasked to design a city of the future for this middle school competition. This year’s essay question that each team must answer is how can transit planners improve the modes and methods for moving people in and around a city?

Whatever the size and location of their future city, if it is above ground they will need to think creatively to keep people moving in good and bad weather conditions. As we know all too well here in Arizona, rain causes traffic backups on freeways and accidents when some motorists fail to slow their speed as wet streets and slick pavement create hazardous driving conditions. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that even if it snowed it would never stick to the streets and roads? or rain would not freeze and turn to ice? and water would never collect on the road way in any appreciable amount? To make this a future reality, new paving materials, technologies and construction techniques are definitely warranted for future transit programs.

To assist the student participants in better understanding some of the transportation issues of today and tomorrow, the National Future City Competition assembled a team of subject matter experts to share their knowledge and advice of transit best practices and emerging opportunities [Ref 2].

Cindy Juiano, a senior technologist and transportation manager with CH2M Hill, suggested imagining a city where automobiles are banned. Mass transit and personal rapid transit systems exist and roads and railways are the only connections to other locations. Juiano stressed the importance of transportation demand management – the ability to optimize transportation system performance and improve transit choices while reducing dependency on single occupancy vehicles. One challenge that some teams may have to face is the opportunity to revitalize existing but aging infrastructure.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Juiano reminded the viewers that although we are still waiting for Harry Potter’s Floo Network – a mode of transportation in the wizards’ world that allows a witch or wizard to get from Point A to Point B by means of Floo powder and a fireplace, the Back to the Future flying car, and the Jetson’s hovercraft, current considerations should also be given to community interaction, access to work and business opportunities, and integration with services and quality of life.

The second speaker, Tom Clemons, vice president with Bentley Systems, shared information about the hyperloop/mover project that he is working on in California. If approved the hyperloop project would enable travelers to go from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about 30 minutes or about 600 miles an hour. It is considered an alternative mode of transportation and has yet to be tested.

Hyperloop Alpha Design (courtesy Bentley Systems)

Hyperloop Alpha Design (courtesy Bentley Systems)

For sure, the cost of a future transportation system like this is an important aspect of city planning and design. The hyperloop project is budgeted for $6 to $7.5 billion, however, many critics say a more realistic price tag for this type of undertaking is $45 billion. Crowd funding is being considered to make the hyperloop a reality. One thing that should not be forgotten by our young transportation planners is that funding of large projects like the hyperloop follow a complex political process.

No future city would be complete without some aspect of green transport. Jeff Olson, principal with Alta Planning & Design, shared that the third opportunity can be found in walking, bicycling and trails to enhance transit design. Automobiles and mass transit are usually considered the first two modes of transportation. How will children and seniors get around if they can’t drive? How will people get to and from transit stations? How will transport make people healthy, safe and happy?

GreenTransportationAccording to Olson, there are many opportunities for green mobility including:

          pedestrians – streetscapes, crossings, public spaces

          bicyclists – on-street bikeways, bike sharing, bike parking

          greenways/trails – green infrastructure, waterfronts, utilities

          transit connections – stations, stops, park and ride

The last webinar speaker was Lisa Fontana Tierney, a senior director with the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE). Ms. Tierney’s discussion focused on intelligent transportation systems (ITS). An ITS is the application of information, technology, and systems engineering to the management and operation of surface transportation systems. Its primary objective is to improve safety, provide environmental benefits and maximize efficiency.

A few ITS examples cited are collision avoidance systems in vehicles, traffic signal control, variable message signs, automated tolls, parking guidance, connected vehicles, and autonomous (self-driving) vehicles. Over the past two decades we have seen the evolution of technology in vehicles with on-board diagnostics (OBD) – a computer-based system required to be built into all 1996 and later light-duty vehicles and trucks, remote engine starts, automatic parallel parking, and self-driving vehicles. Each major automobile manufacturer is offering some of the latest features, e.g. self-parking and autonomous driving, in more of their models each year.  I wonder if a human being or a self-driving vehicle would navigate better in a snowstorm? or heavy rainfall? Of course the most logical answer is “it depends”.

Example of Connected Vehicles (Source: ITE Journal, July 2013, Narla)

Example of Connected Vehicles
(Source: ITE Journal, July 2013, Narla)

Tierney also shared that the typical highway capacity is 2- to 3,000 vehicles per lane per hour. With automation the highway capacity can be increased from 5- to 8,000 vehicles per lane per hour. Connected vehicles – wireless connectivity and communication among vehicles, infrastructure and mobile devices would definitely be added to the mix. Connected vehicles also have the potential to address 82% of the vehicle crash scenarios involving unimpaired drivers. Fuel efficiency continues to be a concern even as the U.S. has increased its export of fossil fuels. Greater fuel efficiency provides enhanced benefits to the environment.

All speakers encouraged this year’s participants in the Future City Competition to look at a full-cycle of mobility from when you leave your home or residence and travel to the office, shopping mall, other businesses, etc, and eventually back home or the point of origin. The objective is to figure out a transportation system for all of the ways we live and work.

[Post Note: This post will also be published as a news release for the Future City Competition Arizona Region, http://www.futurecityarizona.org.]


1. Winter Storm Electra Forecast: Snow, A Little Ice From Mississippi Valley to New England, The Weather Channel, http://www.weather.com/news/weather-winter/winter-storm-electra-forecast-20131211

2. Tomorrow’s Transit, a webinar sponsored by the Future City CompetitionTM,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjv-rREUDfU&feature=youtu.be,


About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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