Office of Operations
photos of traffic merging onto congested highway, congestion in snowstorm, variable message sign, cargo, variable speed limit sign in a work zone, and a freeway at night
21st century operations using 21st century technologies

Operations Story

Congestion: A National Issue

Our ability to move about our neighborhood, our city and between cities has been taken for granted for years. Transportation mobility affects our ability to do our jobs, our quality of life and the economic productivity of our country. In today’s environment, our mobility is also important to our safety and security. Increasingly, however, our mobility is jeopardized by congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that, in 2000, the 75 largest metropolitan areas experienced 3.6 billion vehicle-hours of delay, resulting in 5.7 billion gallons in wasted fuel and $67.5 billion in lost productivity. Congestion impacts everything we do – going to work, picking up the kids at school, getting them to the soccer game, doing grocery shopping, or delivering products to stores for our consumption. Congestion is a part of daily life for millions of people.

What is Congestion?

Highway congestion is caused when there are more vehicles than available space on the road, or, stated differently, when traffic demand approaches or exceeds the available capacity of the highway system. Traffic demands vary significantly depending on the season of the year, the day of the week, and even the time of day. Also, the capacity, often mistaken as constant, can change because of weather, work zones, or traffic incidents.

Roughly half of the congestion experienced by Americans happens virtually every day – it is "recurring". This is the type of congestion where there are simply more vehicles than roadway. The other half of congestion is caused by temporary disruptions that take away part of the roadway from use – or "nonrecurring" congestion. The three main causes of nonrecurring congestion are: incidents ranging from a flat tire to an overturned hazardous material truck (25% of congestion), work zones (10% of congestion), and weather (15% of congestion). Nonrecurring events dramatically reduce the available capacity and reliability of the entire transportation system. This is the type of congestion that surprises us. We plan for a trip of 20 minutes and we experience a trip of 40 minutes. Travelers and shippers are especially sensitive to the unanticipated disruptions to tightly scheduled personal activities and manufacturing distribution procedures.

The effects of congestion are growing. Rush "hour" is no longer an hour. In fact, in 1982, rush "hour" averaged 2-3 hours, and, in 1999, rush "hour" had increased to 5-6 hours. And, there is no end in sight. Freight transportation is expected to almost double in the next twenty years. The number of miles that we travel continues to increase. Between 1980 and 1999, vehicle miles of travel grew by 76 percent while the amount of new roads or lanes increased 1.5 percent. Without aggressive and effective new strategies to mitigate congestion, congestion will continue to grow with crippling impacts on our lives.

What Can Be Done About Congestion?

Successfully reducing the effects of congestion on our lives requires three coordinated approaches – construction, preservation and operation.

Construction projects that alleviate highway bottlenecks and increase capacity are one key approach. This is particularly important for highway freight movement to and from ports and rail terminals to major highways. We are becoming more dependent on imports and exports to support consumer and manufacturing demands and to develop new markets for products and services. Virtually all of this trade uses highway connections to intermodal yards and ports. Identifying and relieving bottlenecks can increase the throughput of our highways, and enable us to make better use of air, rail and maritime services to meet our growing freight demands.

Additionally, many of our roadways and bridges are growing old. Preservation of our existing roadway network is critical. As our highways approach middle age, rehabilitation and maintenance are a necessary part of maintaining our mobility.

Better operating the highway network is the newest approach to confronting transportation challenges in the 21st century.

Operations: The Newest Approach

Much as airspace is managed to support a maximum number of flights, we can do more to operate the transportation system so that it performs better to meet customer expectations regardless of the demands placed on it. Better approaches to operations on the transportation network is a viable and effective strategy to help improve traffic flow and meet growing travel demands. In some locations, it may be our only viable approach. Technology innovations (intelligent transportation systems) give us new and better tools to make the most of the available roads and capacity. The growing congestion problem – and the implications for productivity and security – spurs us to more fully consider better approaches to transportation operations. Better operations of the transportation system holds the potential for substantially improving the way agencies address recurring and, non-recurring congestion. The reduction of non-recurring congestion can also substantially improve freight operations and boost US competitiveness with other nations.

The history of highway transportation, until most recently, was focused on building the road network. Our organizations "grew up" around the need to build roads, beginning with the farm to market roads of the 1930's and into the Interstate System construction era of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. As better operations becomes a strategy more fully applied to transportation, it will require rethinking agency organizations and how services are delivered to those who depend on the transportation system. Effectively addressing the congestion problem will hinge on the ability to reshape traditional transportation organizations into “21st century operations agencies using 21st century technologies”.

What is a 21st Century Operations Agency?

To understand what is meant by a 21st century operations agency, it's helpful to compare historical transportation agencies and emerging operations agencies. To use popular jargon – some things are "out" and others are "in".

Out In
Project focused Customer focused
Output-oriented Performance based
Jurisdictions Systems
Historical information Real-time information
Reactive Proactive
8/5 24/7

To elaborate, there are six characteristics of 21st century operations agencies.

Customer focused
A transportation agency that exhibits 21st century operations maintains focus on its customers' – the traveler's – needs. The agency understands who its customers are (residents, tourists, workers, businesses, freight) and what their needs are. These agencies recognize that travelers care about the quality and reliability of their trip from end-to-end – regardless of who "owns" the roadway. Agencies obtain feedback from their customers and are responsive to their travel needs. They make sure that information about the performance of the transportation system is readily available, timely, and targeted to the needs of the customer.

Performance Driven
Performance of the transportation system will become a key metric. Today we largely measure performance in terms of condition of the physical system. Increasingly, performance measures such as reliability and delay will be important determinants of how well the system is meeting customers' needs. These measures are in early stages of development and we have much to learn about the measures themselves and uses for the measures.

Systems approach
Operations requires a regional and integrated approach to managing the performance of the transportation system. This means having a regional view that transcends city/county/state boundaries and system ownership. The result is a higher-level concern for the operation of the entire transportation system regardless of agency ownership. A systems approach also refers to the integration of technical systems such as intelligent transportation systems within and across agencies. The performance of the transportation system is largely determined by the ability of agencies to work cooperatively together by sharing data and coordinating responsibility.

Real-time management
Key to virtually every congestion mitigation strategy is real-time, or near real-time, information about what is happening on the roadway system, including information on weather, incidents, speed, volume, sudden changes in construction plans and the like. This information can be shared with the public to help them become part of the solution, and the information can be shared with multiple agencies for faster coordination and more precise responses. Improved information is also an asset to the freight community. Information on the location of freight shipments helps carriers manage their fleets, helps manufacturers control their inventory systems, and provides advance information to Federal agencies concerned with trade facilitation and national security.

Historically, highway agencies develop and administer projects. This work is largely accomplished during "typical" work hours – 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. However, the transportation system functions 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Delay can happen any time, any place, and for many reasons. To be responsive to their customers, operations agencies develop the capability to conduct some functions on a 24/7 basis. This requires different staff approaches and a change in philosophy.

Highway agencies focused on better operations are proactive in anticipating and managing transportation events. Planning for special events including signal-timing changes, signing and traveler information are routine. Monitoring weather forecasts and anticipating their impact on transportation allows for use of anti-icing tactics. Advance planning for traffic impacts from work zones ensures planning during project design to minimize disruptions to travelers and businesses. Operations agencies fully plan for the disruptions to traffic in advance of the event.

What are 21st Century Technologies?

21st century technologies, referred to as intelligent transportation system (ITS) technologies, have been researched, deployed, and tested to some degree for ten years or more. These technologies provide information about the transportation system and support development of tools that traffic professionals and travelers never had before. The technologies can be generally grouped into six types.

Information Gathering
These are the technologies that collect information more thoroughly or more frequently than transportation professionals have been able to do in the past. Surveillance and detection cameras, traffic sensors, vehicle probes and infrastructure sensors are examples.

Information Sharing
As personal portable technology matures, an ever-increasing array of devices is available to share travel information. Today, dynamic message signs, highway advisory radio, 511, Internet web sites and specialized warning systems (like fog warnings) are stationary technologies used routinely to share information with travelers.

There are also advanced technologies and software that provide improved methods for controlling and managing traffic. Advanced traffic signal control provides ways of remotely adjusting systems of signals to respond in real-time to changing traffic demands. Lane control signals, ramp meters, transit signal priority, and variable speed limit signs are other technologies that provide other opportunities to control traffic in real-time.

This is an area of growing technology innovation. From complex crash avoidance technologies to in-vehicle guidance systems currently on the market, vehicle-based technologies hold promise to dramatically improve safety and give travelers (including commercial drivers) meaningful information about travel conditions to help them avoid bottlenecks and other potentially disruptive congestion situations.

Vehicle to roadside to home-base
Sometimes referred to as tracing and tracking technology, this allows the freight operators of commercial carriers to maintain contact with their fleets and the cargo they are moving via satellite systems as well as terrestrial based systems. These systems are expanding in use and experiencing lower per unit costs, and have the extra advantage of addressing security needs as well as productivity and safety needs.

Electronic toll tags and "smart" cards for transit and parking are technologies that are seeing rapid deployment. These technologies add efficiency to payment operations and expedite traffic flow.

Taken together, these technologies enable new ways of managing the transportation system to improve its operation. The technologies themselves are not the answer, but the improved ability to operate the system, enabled by the technologies, is key to addressing congestion.

The opportunity for better managing and operating the transportation system to address congestion comes from combining new technologies with a new focus on operations within transportation agencies. Agencies that have embraced 21st century operations will take advantage of new technologies and apply them to achieve better system performance. Applications like freeway management, arterial management, incident and special event management, work zone mobility and safety management, and road weather management marry technology innovations with a desire to better serve customers through improved mobility. These same technologies, supplemented by pre-arrival and clearance information for freight at our borders and intermodal terminals, can improve freight flows as well.

What is FHWA Doing to Support 21st Century Operations using 21st Century Technologies?

FHWA identified congestion as one of its "vital few" priority areas. As discussed above, "operations" is one of three strategies for addressing congestion. FHWA has a number of programs designed to advance system operations. These include initiatives to accelerate the evolution of transportation agencies into 21st century operations agencies using 21st century technologies. FHWA’s programs are organized to support:

  • National recognition of the importance of operations,
  • Institutional and regional change to enhance operations, and
  • Advancements in 21st century operations.

National recognition of the importance of operations

FHWA leads the effort to increase the emphasis on and visibility of transportation operations. This includes congestion data analysis, development of policy and legislation (particularly in preparation for reauthorization of TEA-21), and promotion of an information infrastructure. FHWA also works with ITE, AASHTO, ITSA, APTA and others to sponsor the National Dialogue on Transportation Operations.

Institutional & regional programs

Building regional partnerships is fundamental to supporting 21st century operations. These partnerships focus on convening a wide variety of stakeholders including many, like law enforcement, who are not typically involved. The partnerships serve several roles. They are well suited to creating regional performance measures that quantify goals for transportation system operations. Another potential role for the partnerships is helping to facilitate the ITS deployment of ITS regional architectures and promoting use of ITS standards. The architecture underpins the use of 21st century technologies.

FHWA has activities underway to support development of regional partnerships through literature and training courses. Other programs pertain to developing and defining performance measures. Technical assistance and training are available to assist with ITS architecture and standards.

Advancements in 21st century operations

Implementing 21st century operations requires advancements in nearly all facets of transportation operations and management. These include:

  • Improving day-to-day operations
    21st century operations agencies concern themselves with how well the transportation system performs every day. Consequently, they support activities to improve day-to-day operations through demand management, access management, asset management, application of traffic control devices and traveler information, and they use traffic analysis tools to better understand problems and possible solutions.
  • Reducing recurring congestion
    Reducing recurring congestion requires the development and implementation of new technologies and new approaches for freeway, arterial, and corridor management and control.
  • Mitigating non-recurring congestion
    Aggressive management of temporary disruptions, such as incidents, work zones, weather, and special events can reduce the impacts of these disruptions and return the system to “full capacity.”
  • Streamlining freight operations
    Movement of freight is critical to economic productivity. 21st century operations agencies work to streamline freight operations through Freight Analysis, Professional Development, Freight Size and Weight, and Freight Technology.
  • Responding to emergencies
    Throughout all daily activities, public safety and security must be considered by preparing for emergency response & recovery and military coordination.

The FHWA Office of Operations has extensive programs to address each of these areas. These programs include research and testing of advancements in the state-of-the-art, guidance documents, training, best practices and technical assistance to advance the state-of-the-practice.

Additional information on these programs is available on this web site.

Through these programs, FHWA continues to support better transportation system operations as an important approach to addressing recurring and non-recurring congestion. Effectively addressing congestion hinges on reshaping transportation agencies into 21st century operations agencies that use 21st century technologies to be customer focused and performance driven while using systems approaches and real-time management 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.