Yesterday evening, while driving home from meetings in the New York metropolitan area, I had an extraordinary traffic information experience which highlighted a company in the traffic business that doesn’t often get much credit. I am writing this blog as a shout out Clear Channel Commnication’s Total Traffic Network and as a plea for a new service: Traffic on Demand.
To better understand my story one must understand the traffic landscape. There are several variables to getting traffic information correct and there are several kinds of traffic information. The two most important elements of traffic information are incident and flow data.
There is a widespread belief that real-time traffic flow information from organizations such as Waze and Google is “good enough.” This perception makes life difficult for supplers such as TomTom, Inrix and Nokia Location & Commerce that want to charge for their traffic data. These three competitors do their best to deliver real-time flow and incident information along with predictive traffic models – to allow them to enhance navigation routing instructions.
The quality and accuracy of traffic flow data is steadily improving thanks to the addition of more and more vehicle-based data probes. Flow data is also benefiting from advances in roadside sensor technology – for example, from the implementation of Bluetooth sensors from a wide range of companies including TrafficCast, Traffax, Siemens, Philips and several university research organizations.
But as competitive pressures have grown, traffic information providers have had to reduce their investments in traffic observation resources. Traffic observers help to enhance the publicly available sources of information regarding traffic incidents, the causal element behind traffic jams.
Knowing why traffic is backed up can play a big role in predicting when traffic will improve or how much worse it might get. Also, knowing why traffic is backed up takes the stress and anxiety out of being in traffic. If a driver knows traffic is backed up for a presidential motorcade, a tire changer, or a police emergency it allows him or her to relax and appropriately adjust expectations regarding the potential for clearing up the traffic snarl.
Historically, traffic helicopters provided the best insights regarding causality for traffic events. But traffic helicopters have almost completely disappeared, in most instances replaced by ubiquitous roadside cameras.
Second only to helicopters are fixed observation points and control rooms manned by operators monitoring fixed cameras. While many organizations in the industry have either drastically reduced or completely eliminated these investments, Clear Channel Communication’s Total Traffic Network maintains the largest private traffic monitoring network in the U.S., with 16 regional traffic hubs operating 24/7 and 10 smaller satellite offices. TTN also maintains a proprietary network of traffic cameras as well as some aircraft all feeding the company’s TrafficNet internal traffic data platform which in turn feeds services including SigAlert and Metro Traffic as well as embedded navigation systems.
My story is all about the “why” factor in traffic data and easing anxiety. I was southbound on Route 95 north of Philadelphia Friday afternoon when I noticed police cars blocking entrance and exit ramps on both sides of the highway around Cottman Avenue. Traffic was understandably backed up on the northbound side of the highway though not, thankfully, on my side, southbound.
Still, as the magnitude of the back-up on the other side the Jersey barrier became clearer and as that data appeared as black backup icons on my embedded navigation system, I began to get curious as to what might be the cause of the unfolding event. I had just gotten off the phone with an executive from TrafficCast who had mentioned he was in the Philadelphia area, so I immediately rang him back up. TrafficCast is pursuing the deployment of Bluetooth-based sensors throughout the U.S. under the BlueToad brand with a recent win in the Boston area.
Two or three failed calls later, I decided to call executives at TangoTraffic to see if they might have some insight into the situation I was witnessing which, by now, had revealed itself as a multiple-mile backup. TangoTraffic is a traffic-only cable channel, not unlike the Weather Channel, but focused entirely on local traffic.
TangoTraffic, which includes on its team some former Traffic.com executives and uses a Nokia L&C traffic data feed, is based in Malverne, Pa., not far from Philadelphia, so I was sure they’d have some idea what was going on. Unfortunately, there was no answer. I then called two Inrix executives, but no answer there either, likely due to vacations. Inrix is rapidly closing in on global traffic information market leadershiop and is actively leading the industry shift to IP-based traffic information platforms.
With no success trying to reach Inrix, I turned, finally, to my most reliable traffic info source and on the second try got a vice president from Total Traffic Network on the phone. Literally within seconds this executive was able to tap his TrafficNet database to tell me that the backup was the result of the funeral procession for Officer Brian Lorenzo, an off-duty, though in uniform, motorcycle highway police officer who had been killed two days before by a wrong way driver on the very highway on which I was traveling.
As a final note, the TTN executive let me know that by now, about 10 minutes after passing the origin of the tie-up, the highway ramps had been re-opened and traffic should be moving freely soon.
Good enough traffic information is only good enough until it isn’t good enough. Witnessing the massive backup for the funeral procession of Office Lorenzo reminded me that real-time traffic flow info is not good enough. There are few things more humbling to a driver than being trapped in his or her personal metal cage in a traffic jam.
Conversely, there is nothing more empowering than having access to the digital resources to make sense of the surrounding traffic conditions to be able to plan and respond accordingly. Incident data is the key to unlock that power and Total Traffic Network is the market leader in delivering timely, accurate traffic incident data.
Traffic solutions are improving, contrary to the popular impression that traffic data services are as good as they are ever going to get. BMW’s new IP-based, TPEG-capable traffic delivery platform for the new 7 Series will deliver more information, faster and in more granular increments along the highway, enabling what can only be called high resolution traffic information.
Traffic information has improved and is improving. Enhanced access to more accurate and timely incident information is just one form of improvement. As IP delivery of traffic information transforms the market it will be interesting to see how the quality and quanitity of traffic information is impacted.
TTN's analog human assets may be its most powerful tools in an increasingly digital world. But what my situation called for was analog access to this digital information. What if, instead of talking to a TTN VP, I were able to access the TrafficNet database - or some other cloud resource - by voice to understand the traffic situation surrounding me. The traffic application within Harman's Aha Radio - enabled as it is by Inrix - is a step in this direction, but there is no reason why traffic on demand or traffic as a service could not be enabled.
More progress will come from image recognition being brought to traffic cameras along with crowd sourcing and wider deployment of more accurate Bluetooth-based roadside sensors. In the end, though, there is no substitute for the human factor – the ability to identify causal factors for traffic incidents, report those causes, and point out solutions for stressed out drivers…like me. But traffic on demand is the new frontier and TTN can make it happen.