Atlanta traffic bad but predictable

New technology makes a difference

The Atlanta area’s freeway congestion may be bad, but at least you can count on it.

For the first time, the nation’s premier traffic congestion report, Urban Mobility, has measured and ranked the reliability of American urban freeway traffic. The report, to be released Tuesday, shows the Atlanta area’s drive times are unexpectedly stable, compared to other urban areas’ — thanks to decades of cutting-edge traffic technology and management, according to the report’s author.

The resulting increased reliability, measured in a new “planning time index,” means freeway drivers here have a better idea than some others of how long a drive will take, and don’t waste as much time building in an unnecessary buffer around everything they schedule.

Georgia continues to reach for the latest tools to track speeds and respond, tools that currently include Bluetooth sensors along Cobb Parkway, crowd-sourcing, and microwave traffic sensors along I-20 and Ga. 400. So, the reliability benefits that drivers have seen on the expressways could spread to arterial roads when the state adds important surface streets to Georgia Navigator’s popular online congestion map next year.

The Atlanta area’s overall traffic may still be slow — the seventh slowest in the nation — but freeway traffic is smoother than expected.

Charles Ellis, 30, drives all over metro Atlanta for his landscape company, and he’d agree with that assessment. Though highway congestion is awful, he said, “I feel like you know what to expect.” He uses Navigator, he said, and “I do everything I can to stay off the freeways.”

Navigator’s first expansion onto arterial roads could include Roswell Road, where Ellis was out to dinner with his family Monday. If that happens, he said, “I think it’d be huge.”

Not everyone buys it. Tisha Rosamond, owner of Nothing Bundt Cakes, says, “There is no method to the madness,” especially on Ga. 400.

Paradoxically, a section of Ga. 400 was named the nation’s most unreliable road, likely because of the toll booth at its end, but it’s not the northern stretch Rosamond drives.

However, until now Rosamond hasn’t used Navigator. Now that she knows about it, she will, she said, especially if it’s installed on nearby Roswell Road. “I think it would be great,” she said.

Some of the tools aim to alert commuters to approaching traffic jams in time for the drivers to reroute. Those include or dialing 511, and the crowd-sourced app WAZE, where commuters with smartphones can verbally register highway debris or crashes. Others, such as HERO units and a multiagency task force on wreck clearance, try to unblock lanes as fast as possible. Another initiative works on lowering city and county borders to manage regional traffic corridors and their traffic signals in a coordinated way.

Georgia is a national leader in such programs, said Tim Lomax, an author of Urban Mobility, produced by the Texas Transportation Institute. (The report is constructed with 2011 GPS data from cars in corporate auto fleets assembled by the firm Inrix.)

“While we may not be able to make it go away,” Lomax said ruefully, “I think we’ve got a good chance of making it reliably bad.”

The programs cost just short of $30 million a year to run, said Mark Demidovich, the Georgia Department of Transportation’s assistant state traffic engineer, but the report estimates they save metro Atlanta $150 million a year in congestion costs.

The Atlanta area’s traffic congestion remained among the worst in the country, according to the report, sapping 51 wasted hours from the average auto commuter each year.

But the stability helps. Lomax points out that Atlanta, the seventh-most-congested urban area, could be expected to have top 10 unreliability of freeway traffic as well. But it doesn’t: It ranks 21st worst, depending on which measure you use.

Washington, D.C., had the worst congestion and reliability, and Los Angeles had the second-worst.

“People care about this,” said David Levinson, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota who researches traffic psychology surrounding reliability. People will even accept more congestion to get more reliability, he said, and he has a mathematical formula to calculate how much.

“It’s the surprises, the inconsistency of the delay that makes it difficult,” costing people social capital with colleagues, clients and friends when they are unexpectedly late, he said.

Georgia traffic officials say the results validate what they’ve long believed about the programs.

“That’s been our push,” said Keith Golden, commissioner of the state DOT, which oversees the programs. It’s especially important, he said, now that there is less money for road expansion. “It truly is just trying to squeeze more from the resources we have.”

Georgia launched the initial programs, such as Georgia Navigator, with help from Washington to make a good impression during the 1996 Olympic Games. The latest developments should spread Navigator’s monitoring from the freeways to 13 regional surface-street corridors next year. A Navigator app for mobile phones should also be out next week, Demidovich said.

One of the latest programs is trying out “sniffers” on Cobb Parkway that track Bluetooths in cars to gauge traffic speeds. The tracking is done by an anonymous identifying number and contains no information on the identity of the driver, according to Demidovich.

Right now, that information is being used to time traffic lights. If it’s successful, it could be a technology used when the surface streets join Navigator.

Demidovich has worked on the programs here for 20 years, and when he started, “the only way you could see how traffic was flowing was literally to walk out and look out the window,” which he would do since DOT’s offices overlooked a big interchange, he said. “The highways were pretty much left to flow on their own.”

Even within the past decade, tractor-trailer crashes could shut down an entire highway, before the state rewrote rules on clearing crashes.

Barring unique circumstances, “those five-, six-, seven-hour wrecks are a thing of the past,” Demidovich said.

Now, DOT’s road cameras may see debris fall before motorists do. They will post alerts on digital overhead highway message signs, and on the Navigator website. Depending on how bad traffic is, some will leave the highway or decline to enter it, lessening the volume of the traffic jam.

Demidovich believes that eventually, technology installed in cars, like GPS tracking, will be the technology used for traffic monitoring and alerts. And companies like Google are already developing “driverless” cars that they hope will reduce congestion by reducing driving mistakes.

It’s a heady future. But drivers like Ellis, the landscape company owner, cautioned it’s no substitute for nuts-and-bolts expansion of roads and mass transit.

“For me, they have to go together,” he said.

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