Most people are familiar with the real estate industry’s mantra: “Location, location, location.” The phrase essentially means that a property’s location is the most significant factor in determining its value. Not to be outdone as a transportation professional, I’d like to offer up a new adage: “Operations, operations, operations.” This phrase conveys that how well or poorly a transportation facility is operated is the most significant factor in determining its safety and efficiency. No matter how well a roadway is planned, designed, constructed, or even maintained, if it’s not operated effectively, its performance isn’t going to be up to par.
While it’s not a new concept by any means, the use of Traffic (or Transportation) Management Centers (TMCs) is one way of improving operations for individual corridors and for an agency’s overall transportation program. The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration’s Freeway Management and Operations Handbook says that “the TMC is the hub or nerve center of most freeway management systems. It is here data about the freeway system is collected and processed, fused with other operational and control data, synthesized to produce ‘information’, and distributed to stakeholders such as the media, other agencies, and the traveling public.” TMC staff use the information to monitor the operation of the freeway and to initiate control strategies that affect changes in the operation of the freeway network. It is also where agencies can coordinate their responses to traffic situations and incidents.
TMCs operate in a wide variety of models based on the needs and resources of the agency owner. Some of the main characteristics are:
- TMCs can be staffed with agency personnel, contractor/consultant personnel, or a blended combination of each
- TMC coverage area can be local, regional or statewide. Ideally TMCs within a certain geographic area utilize center-to-center systems.
- TMCs can operate during peak travel hours, or can provide year-round 24x7x365 coverage.
- TMCs can have direct interface with the public by taking motorist calls for information and assistance or they may provide information to the public through 511 websites, telephone systems or mobile applications.
- TMC coordination and communication with other agencies can be manual, through phone calls and emails, or automated through integrated computer systems or interoperable radio systems.
- TMCs can be brick and mortar stand-alone buildings, retrofitted spaces within existing facilities, or can even be virtual.
TMCs generally have the same major functional areas. Each of these help to facilitate better, safer, higher-performing operations:
Traveler Information Dissemination
One of the most important functions of a TMC is to provide information to the travelling public. TMCs use a variety of means to get the word out about traffic conditions, including any lane-blocking incidents, road work, recurring congestion, travel times, road weather issues, special events and emergency notifications and alerts. Some of this information, such as travel times, is disseminated automatically by Advanced Traveler Information Systems (ATIS). When TMCs provide motorists with advanced information about adverse road conditions, allowing them an opportunity to adjust their travel plans to avoid the problem area, everyone wins. The fore-warned motorist gets to where they are going with less delay and less of a headache; other motorists benefit because there are less vehicles adding to the problem area; construction and maintenance workers are safer within work zones; and emergency responders are at less risk as they work incident scenes. TMCs who have operators taking calls from the public can be invaluable assets for the agency. The TMC Operators providing customer service may be speaking with someone who is calling a transportation agency for the first time. Creating a good experience for the caller goes a long way in improving the agency’s PR stature.
Traffic Incident Management
I’ve blogged about the benefits of Traffic Incident Management Enhancement (TIME) before. Traffic incident management is a key player in improving traffic operations. While TMC Operators are not on-scene, they often are “first responders” to an incident. By monitoring CCTV surveillance cameras, TMC Operators often find incidents before they are called in or identified by incident responders. TMCs can be the hub for information exchange between other responding agencies. The information TMCs have regarding not only the incident scene itself but also travel conditions surrounding the scene can help on-scene responders reduce their response time. TMCs are able to provide accurate information about the incident scene so that when notifying local public safety responders, they are able to provide accurate information so that the appropriate responders and the right size and type of towing and recovery equipment are dispatched.
In many instances, we just get used to rush hour congestion, and resign ourselves to the fact that there is nothing we can do about it. But TMCs don’t resign themselves to that inevitability. TMC Operators understand the difference between recurring and non-recurring congestion, but believe they have the ability (and yes, even the responsibility) to do what they can to mitigate the adverse effects of both. TMC Operators can control the operation of ramp meters, provide information to motorists to avoid the area and assist with more efficient incident and roadway clearance. Posting a travel time message indicating that conditions are slower than normal is a simple way a TMC can reduce congestion, even if there is no specific cause for the congestion, such as a crash or lane close, to report. The software, hardware, field equipment and algorithms the TMC uses to detect and report congestion are anything but simple, but the outcomes are well worth the investment made by DOTs. A motorist seeing a longer than normal travel time may modify his or her route to avoid the area, becoming one less vehicle adding to the traffic jam.
In the second part of GS&P’s TMC series, we’ll discuss the other major functional areas of TMCs which include: failure management, special events management, emergency management and records management. Stay tuned!