How traffic simulators can help cities take a bite out of commute times

Traffic congestion is a major headache for many cities experiencing steady population growth, and several approaches are being tried to mitigate it. A new approach from the University of Nevada, Reno that involves traffic simulators is demonstrating a lot of potential for being able to unravel knots of traffic congestion and reduce commute times. But it's also serving another purpose. The simulation research project is giving participating students valuable real-world experience and training at a time when traffic engineers and transportation planners are in short supply. — Doug Peeples


It's called the Physical Arterial Signal Simulation (PASS) and what it's intended to do is give student researchers the tools they need to build optimal, coordinated, cost-effective traffic signal timing plans for the city.

The PASS system is specific to Reno and is said to be the only system of its type in North America although there are two in China.

Designed by Zong Tian, a UNR civil and environmental engineering professor, in collaboration with the Beijing Institute of Technology, PASS enables students to program timing plans into National Electronic Manufacturers Association (NEMA) signal controllers and send it to the National Transportation Communications for Intelligent Transportation System Protocol, which is working to develop standards for intelligent transportation systems.

"Signal re-timing is considered one of the most cost-effective traffic management strategies," Tian explained. "For both personal vehicles and public transportation, well-timed signals means reduced stops, which reduced travel delays and back-ups, and lowers fuel consumption and emissions. One of the first intersections we studied was North McCarran Boulevard along Clearacre Lane and US 395, and we've found that the general benefit-cost ratio ranges between 30:1 and 300:1. So this system can help us create a very real and very tangible difference."

But how does PASS work?
"The system is able to display traffic progression either through computer simulation or through the physical arterial model, providing near real signal operations and visualizations. It essentially helps us learn how to make the streets and highways of Reno more cost-effective and manageable, Tian said. "Because the system uses simulated traffic, but real NEMA signal controllers, students can learn how signal control is implemented in the real world. The animation and scale model provide very real traffic signal operations and visualization, which makes it much easier to explain the basic concepts by visualizing connections between timing design and actual signal operations."

And as effective as PASS is in developing traffic simulations, Tian said it is equally effective as a teaching tool. "Traffic engineering provides a lot of research and career opportunities, and a system like ths only helps when it comes to how students think about problem solving and further advancements in the field."

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.