Smart Traffic on City Road - Data Collection

Should you be measuring the performance of your traffic operations? You probably guessed “yes!”, so why are few agencies and municipalities doing so?

In fact, the category “traffic monitoring and data collection” was given a failing grade on a national level in the National Transportation Operations (NTOC) 2012 US report card.

Considering the importance, it is imperative that our industry continues to improve upon this.

Why is Traffic Monitoring and Data Collection so Important?

An agency will start with a clear objective before starting a new project. Naturally then, traffic monitoring and data collection are required to show if this objective was met

Additionally, traffic monitoring can help agencies to prioritize locations with the worst conditions. This will allow them to maximize the effects of investments. For further detail, check out our post on technology revolutionizing intersection performance evaluation. During the project, agencies can pair the data with key performance indicators to track progress and identify areas for adjustment. Once the project is over, it gives quantifiable data to prove success.

Without monitoring, agencies simply cannot have a full picture of their project. The added prioritization on monitoring can also lead to significant time and cost savings.

The Problem

Unfortunately, 49% of agencies in the NTOC report had little to no ongoing programs for monitoring their performance or assessing their operational objectives. On top of this, agencies admitted to often performing no assessments on the quality of their data. This is equivalent to collecting no data at all, as misinformation can guide actions or investments in the wrong direction.

The Solution

Several forms of data exist when it comes to traffic monitoring. Common input data, such as vehicle counts, classifications, and turning movements are often collected to structure the project. However, important outcome data, such as travel time, are often missed.

Travel time is a fundamental measure in transportation, and is a key indicator of a road or network’s performance. Agencies have likely foregone collecting or monitoring travel time data in the past due to the challenges involved in collecting it.

For example, sending GPS probes in test vehicles requires a significant output of time and human resources. For the same reason, it also impractical to collect probe data on a ongoing basis. The result is a small sample size and thus lower quality data. Additionally, the test vehicles contribute unnecessary pollution to the environment. To improve data collection, a non-intrusive and autonomous system can offer a more practical solution.

Non-intrusive options allow for autonomous and continuous data collection from a remote location. It is an intelligent way to improve traffic monitoring efforts, as it allows agencies to save time and resources, both in general and when compared to other solutions.

License Plate Matching (ANPR)

Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras provide a time-saving solution for monitoring and collecting travel time data. The cameras work by reading the plate numbers of passing cars, matching them at multiple points, and calculating the time between detections. In doing so, one can retrieve the data on travel time and average speed, which are needed for monitoring operational outcomes.

Recent algorithms have become very accurate for matching plate numbers and, after installation, the system requires little added time commitment. However, weather and visibility conditions hinder their rate and accuracy of detection. Another issue to keep in mind is the installation can be quite complicated. Because of this, it is likely to not be worth the time expenditure for short-term projects. Furthermore, it is one of the more expensive options available and its video recording requires a large amount of bandwidth.

Bluetooth and WiFi Sensor Systems

Bluetooth and WiFi sensors are a more recent, but widely proven technique for collecting travel time data. Major benefits of these systems are their efficiency and cost effectiveness. Their difference from ANPR cameras is that, rather than detecting and matching plate numbers, they detect and match the MAC addresses of in-vehicle devices. A MAC address is an identification number that is unique to each device (phone, tablet, car system, etc.) and remains constant over time. It does not give information on its user and so the detection data remains anonymous. The sensor company should also provide a MAC address encryption service to add an additional layer of anonymity.

Unlike ANPR, the installation time of a Bluetooth and Wi-Fi sensor system is quick and simple. These systems are also not affected by weather or visibility conditions. The data it collects uses very little bandwidth,  and it is the most affordable non-intrusive solution available. While it does deliver a lower matching rate than ANPR cameras on average, the combination of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi scanning provides a large enough sample size to deliver accurate data.

Moving Forward

To begin improving traffic monitoring and data collection, it is key to start with the fundamentals. Before every project an agency should have a clear set objective, with a list of measurable key performance indicators.

Next, the implementation of a non-intrusive autonomous system to collect and monitor traffic data should be considered.

It is important to find a data collection system that fits a project’s individual needs. Engaging with a company who is focused on learning about the project and goals before they start recommending options is crucial. Depending on the length of the project, it may benefit from different rental or ownership options.

Once the system is installed in the field, consistently monitor progress and compare it against the key performance indicators. Systems that operate in conjunction with an online web portal for live data/analytics make this step particularly easy. Once the data is coming in, follow a documented data quality program to confirm that the data is reliable. Finally, use the information: reallocate resources to areas of need, validate and identify areas of success, make adjustments, and repeat.

Traffic monitoring and data collection is an ongoing project in itself. However, with a non-intrusive and autonomous collection system, projects require little work beyond the initial roadside installation. There are many benefits to this minimal time investment: key insights, resource prioritization, long-term time saved, and the ability to show legitimate results throughout the project.