"ITS and transportation systems management and operations -- by improving traffic flow, reducing the starts and stops, [and] acceleration and deceleration -- really reduces greenhouse gases," said Louis Neudorff, ITS expert at CH2M Hill.
According to research by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, applying real-time signal optimization systems to the U.S. traffic network can reduce stopping by as much as 40 percent, reduce travel time by as much as 25 percent, cut gasoline consumption by 10 percent and reduce emissions by 22 percent.
In terms of climate change adaptation, adjusting traffic signals and signs can also alert drivers to road closures or direct them to evacuation sites during severe weather events like Superstorm Sandy, Neudorff said. "[ITS] is not going to prevent the havoc, but it can help minimize the havoc," he added.
Alternative to building more freeways
Companies like Siemens AG, Xerox Corp. and Schneider Electric SA have already built adaptive traffic management systems in cities across the United States. These systems do not use Wi-Fi-based V2I communications systems, which are still in their infancy. Instead, they rely on sensors and imaging to determine a vehicle's location and speed in order to reduce congestion.
"Many cities want to become more green, and this is an ideal way to do it. The traffic congestion in a city is probably one of your biggest pollutants," said Patrick McGowan, president of Schneider Electric's North America transportation division.
In addition to optimizing car travel, ITS technologies can also support alternative modes of transportation.
Iteris Inc., for instance, offers a technology that can detect when a bicycle enters an intersection and lengthen the traffic signal time so the cyclist can leave the area safely. One of Siemens' systems in San Antonio is designed to know whether a bus is off schedule and adjust the street lights so it gets back on track without interrupting the regular flow of traffic.
These types of tailored traffic systems can make low-carbon forms of transportation more appealing and allow for overall greater road capacity.
"You could build a new freeway, which is very, very expensive, or you could build a new technology ... and move the traffic at a pretty good speed from one end [of a city] to the other end," said Stephen Mathew, head of product marketing at Siemens' road and city mobility division.
More brains, fewer bricks and -- hopefully -- deaths
The idea of squeezing more capacity out of existing roadways is appealing to governments that are trying to meet the demand for mobility that comes from rising populations and a growing economy, while also coping with tight budgets.
"Our field has traditionally had a very engineering-centric focus to it," said Polly Trottenberg, DOT undersecretary, speaking at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America summit. "Nowadays, I think ... a lot of our transportation challenges are going to call for operational and technological solutions in addition to bricks and mortar."
By 2014, the gas-tax-funded Highway Trust Fund will be nearly bankrupt, according to Trottenberg. Technological solutions like electronic tolling could squeeze more revenue out of roads and other infrastructure, while other ITS solutions add more capacity to them. Tolls and other user fees could help supplement the gas tax, particularly as consumers switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles (ClimateWire, April 16).
But policymakers aren't just interested in budgets; they're also focused on safety. More than 32,000 people died on U.S. highways in 2011, and while the overall number of traffic deaths has declined in recent years, the number of distracted-driving traffic deaths has slightly increased, according to David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).