Change Leader Full Interview: A Career Spent Improving Transportation Safety and Saving Lives
Jim Barbaresso is the HNTB national practice leader for Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) and emerging mobility solutions as well as a senior vice president and HNTB Fellow.
V1 Media: Please provide a brief background of your education and career before HNTB.
Barbaresso: I graduated with a master’s degree in transportation planning from the University of Iowa back in 1978. Right after that, my first job brought me to Michigan to work at the Road Commission for Oakland County, which is in the northern suburbs of Detroit. I started there as a planner. After 10 years or so, I became the director of planning and development. My job included not just planning activities, but also some of the intelligent transportation system work we were beginning to get into. It was all about technology at the time.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we were just fledglings at that time in terms of technology and how it might be applied to transportation. But in the late 1980s, we started looking at technology as a way to improve transportation safety and reduce congestion on the local roads in the northern suburbs of Detroit. The Road Commission at the time was one of the pioneers in that space. After 18 years of working at the Road Commission, I was wooed away from the public sector to become a consultant. I started with Rockwell International initially. Then they dissolved their transportation unit, and it was picked up by a company called Iteris. After 10 years at Iteris, I came to work for HNTB. 40-year career so far, 41 years actually.
V1 Media: Congratulations. Tell me a little bit about your current role at HNTB. What’s the main focus of your work there?
Barbaresso: I lead our national practice in intelligent transportation and emerging mobility solutions. We have about 250 practitioners in that area at HNTB. Many of them traffic engineers, but some of them technologists, some of them planners, many of them civil engineers. I basically support them and our clients with subject-matter expertise and ITS in emerging mobility, but also technical and policy advisory services and marketing support.
My work demands that I travel a lot. We have offices around the country. Before the current health crisis, I was constantly on the road. Fortunately, we’ve grown our capabilities around the country and I now have a lot of great people working for me and with me to help out in this area. Recently, the focus has been a lot on connected and automated and electric and shared vehicle solutions, and smart cities, too.
Especially as cities have been challenged by tremendous growth, but also some of the strain on their infrastructure and other urban issues. Some of these emerging mobility solutions can help out in terms of looking at new ways to solve their problems through data-driven types of solutions, but also solutions to support greater accessibility for transportation-disadvantaged populations, things like that.
V1 Media: How would you describe ITS or IT in emerging mobility solutions? What are their effect on infrastructure and society?
Barbaresso: I first got started in ITS back in the late 1980s, a little over three decades ago, and it’s come a long way since then. Initially, it was really about technology. We were just getting into things like solid-state electronics along the roadway. Most of our traffic-signal controllers were electromechanical. It was pretty antiquated by today’s standards. Then suddenly the computer age was upon us, and we began applying some of that to transportation to improve traffic-signal control, but also better communications and different sensors to collect data to improve transportation operations and safety.
There was a tipping point, back in the 1990 to 1995 timeframe, when ITS really took off. It was mostly, like I said, about technology, but now we’re looking more at the processes where we use the data and integrated solutions. We’re looking more at system performance and data-driven decisions and how vehicles interact with the infrastructure through different connectivity solutions: vehicle automation, electrification and new transit and freight solutions and even new modes of travel.
A couple of examples: Hyperloop and even flying vehicles now. We have all these technological tools to address our most critical transportation needs. Those needs include reducing crashes and managing congestion, but also improving the environment and providing greater accessibility to opportunities for different populations. I think that’s really important. That’s really the role transportation plays in society now that we have all of these new technological tools that can be applied to meet the needs of our society in the transportation space. What that does is provide greater opportunities for people.
V1 Media: Might you be able to pick out one or two of those technologies mentioned that might be personal favorites or you think are going to have the most impact in the next few years?
Barbaresso: Ever since I first got into ITS three or more decades ago, the ones I’ve been captivated by have been connected and automated vehicle technologies. We started thinking about this decades ago and what the impacts might be on society. When I looked at the opportunities presented by connected and automated vehicles, even as far back as three decades ago, I always felt it was a huge opportunity to maximize safety–a huge focus for me–and to improve traffic flow.
I’m still looking forward to the day where we inch closer to that reality. We’re not quite there yet, but I want it for my kids and my kids’ kids. When it comes down to it, it’s for the future generations where we can reduce crash rates to near-zero levels and improve traffic flow through connected and automated vehicle technologies. That’s always been captivating to me. I’ve been working toward that, helping many of our clients try to achieve that even to this day.
V1 Media: You talk about how that’ll help safety in the future. I noticed in a lot of your work that safety has been a constant focus. Tell us a little about why that’s so important to you and some of the key safety improvements you helped develop and are most proud of.
Barbaresso: It has been a career focus for me. It started really on my first day on the job at the Road Commission for Oakland County back in 1978. It’s interesting because the Road Commission had just passed a resolution to make safety its number one priority. One of my first jobs was to analyze crash data and help identify improvement priorities; to analyze that data to see if there was something we could do out on the roadway to mitigate those crashes.
I came up with some new ways to evaluate the crash data and help establish improvement priorities and investment priorities to maximize safety. Those processes then became embedded, and we began developing this “culture of safety” at the Road Commission. That initial taste of helping society by reducing crashes really was a stimulus for me to get engaged in this and make it a career focus. It felt good. It really did. That’s what it was. It just felt good to help save lives.
One of the first things I did back in the 1980s, I found a crash pattern at traffic signals during late-night hours. I looked at the operation of those traffic signals. I discovered that we switched them from full cycle operation–where they operate in normal mode with red, yellow and green signals–to a flashing operation at late-night hours. I found there were a bunch of right-angle collisions at many of these intersections. As I analyzed the data, I asked my bosses, “Can we do a ‘before and after’ study? I want to look at this and switch some of these intersections where we have high crash rates at late-night hours over to full operation during all hours, 24/7.”
They said, “Okay, let’s try it.” We did. We discovered a tremendous decrease in crashes at those intersections during those nighttime hours. But we had to dissect the data. We had to analyze it. Then we had to come up with a policy and a procedure that would be implemented county-wide. I think because of that, we saved lives. That process got written up for the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the Transportation Research Board at the National Academy of Sciences. Not too long after that, everybody recognized me. They called me the “flashing signal guy.” But that process is still in place at the Road Commission for Oakland County, even after more than three decades. It’s still making an impact on safety and saving lives.
V1 Media: Were any of those programs related to the FASTTRAC program?
Barbaresso: Yes. FASTTRAC came along in the early 1990s. We were facing some tremendous growth in Oakland County in the late 1980s. The Road Commission didn’t have resources to widen all the roads to accommodate the growth. We looked at different funding options. I prepared a road-improvement program that we presented to the County Board of Commissioners. The one piece of that program they actually adopted was to develop and implement a traffic-signal control system in Oakland County. They gave us 2 million bucks.
I said, “OK, let’s see what we can do with this 2 million bucks.” My managing director at the time was John Grubba. We discussed putting in an adaptive traffic-signal control system. There were only two in the world at the time. One was developed in the UK; it was called SCOOT. The other one was developed in Australia; it was called SCATS: the Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic Signal system.
We elected to go with the SCATS system. We traveled down to Sydney, Australia, and signed an intergovernmental agreement with the Roads & Traffic Authority of New South Wales to bring SCATS back to the U.S. That was the first adaptive traffic-signal system in the U.S. That was also the start of the FASTTRAC program. FASTTRAC stands for Faster and Safer Travel through Traffic Routing and Advanced Controls.
That $2 million was actually seed money. We received a number of congressional earmarks after that to expand the FASTTRAC signal system, but also to supplement it with a couple of new technologies, including video detection capabilities, because one thing we needed for adaptive signals was a significant amount of vehicle detection. We had to know where the cars were and how many cars there were in order for the signals to adapt their timing to meet traffic demands.
We needed a really reliable and precise way of monitoring traffic flow at intersections. We couldn’t keep our system of “inductive loops” in operation. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the technology, but loops are wires embedded in the road pavement that would detect cars as they drive over them. Those detectors were failing regularly because of weather conditions in Michigan and due to pavement wear. In order to maintain or replace the loops, we always had to close a road lane or more. We thought going overhead with a non-intrusive video solution might be a better way to go.
We worked with a professor at the University of Minnesota and, ultimately, Image Sensing Systems, which was a startup that spun out of the University of Minnesota, to develop a video detector for our system. That was one of the first times throughout the world, actually, where adaptive control and video detection were employed together. Then because we are in Detroit, we talked to automotive suppliers. One of them, Siemens, offered a unique technology they were employing to communicate with cars. We thought, “All right, let’s look at that.”
Our goal was to put up some roadside equipment that would communicate with vehicles that were equipped with a receiver. We could give them routing instructions, then also collect probe data from those vehicles to transform our adaptive signal system into a predictive traffic-signal system. We knew where the traffic was, where it was coming from, what speed it was approaching at, and we could actually predict what the traffic would look like approaching the intersection. This was in the early 1990s. This was almost 30 years ago when we were doing this.
Unfortunately, the technologies–the computing processing speeds and communications technologies that were in place back then–were not fast enough or they couldn’t crunch our numbers quickly enough to support what we were hoping to do. However, FASTTRAC is still in place today. The Road Commission is still running it. Out of the three main federal operational tests that were underway in the early 1990s, FASTTRAC is the only one that’s still in operation. I’m pretty proud of that.
I was one of the founders of the FASTTRAC program and managed that program from 1991 through 1996, from its startup to the time I left the Road Commission. By that time, we had 350 traffic signals under adaptive control. We had 100 roadside beacons communicating with 700 vehicles on the road, collecting data and providing dynamic route guidance to those test vehicles. But I left in 1996. Since then, the Road Commission more than doubled the number of adaptive signals out on the highway. They’ve grown tremendously.
V1 Media: A couple of small clarifications. Adaptive signals, those are ones that adjust based on the traffic that’s there and waiting. Is that correct?
Barbaresso: That’s part of it. There is a predictive element to it. Yes, it adapts to the amount of traffic in the system. It uses inputs from stopped-car detection, which is the traffic that’s right there at the intersection. But also what’s coming from upstream intersections to predict what will be needed in terms of green time to move and optimize traffic. Really it’s about optimization of the traffic-signal timing to move more vehicles through the intersections.
It does two things. It not only optimizes timing at a specific intersection by efficiently allocating the “green” time of the traffic signal, but then it coordinates the signals along corridors too; the Australians use the term that they’re “married,” which means they’re in a subset. They are running the same traffic-signal timing solutions and patterns, so you can move traffic through the corridor. The traffic basically doesn’t need to stop. It optimizes at the intersection but also in the corridor.
V1 Media: Is video now the preferred method of monitoring these?
Barbaresso: Yes. We were the first to use it. In fact, we got the first video detection units from Econolite, a company that produced or manufactured the Autoscope, which was the brand of video detector we used initially. We got the first 28 off the assembly line. We were the first ones to ever use video for this purpose. Now video detection is used everywhere.
Being first had its challenges. Initially, with those first 28, we had some technological problems. For example, we had shadow-processing difficulties. At one intersection, a business right at the corner had this huge American flag. During dusk, it would cast a shadow over the intersection as it’s flapping in the wind. When that happened, the system, because the video detection uses image processing, saw that shadow being cast over the detection zone as a vehicle. It then placed a call to the traffic-signal controller that a vehicle was sitting in the detection zone.
It would either extend the green time or provide a green for that particular lane of traffic when it was unnecessary. Over a period of a couple years, we were able to further develop shadow-processing algorithms to fix that situation and improve it dramatically. We helped shadow processing reach a state of maturity, and it’s been adopted by the industry now as a standard for video detection.
Another challenge was directional detection. If you’re at an intersection, sometimes somebody turning left will cut across the left turn lane in the perpendicular direction of travel. When they did that, they would set off a detection alert. The detector would place a call to the controller that a vehicle was present in the detection zone even though it was coming from a different direction to travel.
We then implemented directional detection. That, too, became a standard. The whole video-detection industry was able to evolve because of what Oakland County did early on in the early 1990s to implement this big testbed in Oakland County. It was pretty incredible. We were proud we were the first to implement, but also that we were able to make these huge improvements in the technology that today are pretty standard for video detection.
V1 Media: Could you give one piece of advice for either civil engineers or transportation professionals, for both those who are new to the field as well as experienced practitioners looking to stay on top?
Barbaresso: For people new to the field, I would just say work hard to make a difference in your community or in your area of expertise. For me, it was about saving lives. I worked with that every day when I first started out. Make a difference. Just keep that in the forefront of where you are. I think that will help them succeed.
Then for more-experienced practitioners, my advice is to make sure you pass along the lessons you’ve learned during your career, your leadership qualities, the things that you’ve learned. It’s important to teach others. That not only makes them successful, but it also makes you more successful. The goal is to make them better than you are. That’s how we can elevate our profession and really make a difference. Especially as older professionals with a lot of experience under our belt, our goal is to mentor and bring up the new generation and give them the skills and experience they need to make them successful.
V1 Media: You were recently added to the ITS World Congress Hall of Fame Lifetime Recognition Award. Can you tell me what that means to you and why you believe you were honored?
Barbaresso: First of all, I am honored to have been named to the Hall of Fame for the ITS World Congress for my long career in this field. When I look at this honor, and I look at the previous 9 inductees that came before me from the Americas – I was the 10th – I’ve been privileged to work with many of them over the last 40 years. I just am humbled by that, because they were global pioneers in ITS.
But the other reason I was honored began back in 2010, when we learned that Detroit was going to be the site of the 2014 ITS World Congress, and I was named chair of the World Congress Organizing Committee. As a result, I worked my tail off to make sure that the ITS World Congress in Detroit would be successful.
Of course, it was about that time that Detroit was going through bankruptcy. This event to me represented a part of Detroit’s comeback story. It really could help position Detroit and rebrand Detroit as the new mobility capital of the world. I fought very hard to make the event a success. Of course, I had a lot of help in doing that. The Michigan DOT, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Governor Snyder (who was in office at the time), were all huge supporters of the World Congress and actually put a lot of resources toward making the event successful.
The other side of that was engaging the auto industry. Up to this point in time, they didn’t really play a huge role in the ITS world, even though they were doing some tremendous things with vehicle connectivity and automation that we wanted to highlight. We also collaborated with our international counterparts in Asia and in Europe. I think that, too, was helpful in making sure the event was successful. I think all of those things combined really led to the success of the ITS World Congress in Detroit. It was the most successful World Congress held in the Americas thus far.
I think that success propelled me to the point where I could be recognized with this great honor. But again, I didn’t do it alone. I had a whole team behind me that was very supportive, including my own company at HNTB that supported me throughout this effort. It became my regular job there for a while. That was critically important to making it happen, too. I’m very grateful to HNTB, but also to everybody else for helping me with this achievement.
V1 Media: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Barbaresso: I think we’re on the cusp of a transformation, and I want this to be beneficial. I worry a little bit about the negative impacts some of these new technologies might have on society. But I see a pretty bright future with regard to how they will impact safety and mobility.
We have to make sure we plan accordingly and minimize the potential negative disruptions that could result. But I’m looking forward to the future. Like I said, it’s primarily for my kids and my kids’ kids, but I’m looking forward to it, too. As I get older, I’m going to want a car to drive me around. I won’t want to drive anymore. When I can’t drive anymore, that’ll be a huge benefit to me. I’m looking forward to that day.