Transportation Troubleshooting: AASHTO Manual Will Create a One-Stop Shop for Transportation Operations
One of the things that keeps me excited about working in transportation is how rapidly the technological tools for moving people and goods are evolving. As I noted in my December 2022 column, “Mobility Marketplace Will Improve How We Use Transportation Systems,” smartphones have enabled an array of entirely new mobility services—from ride-hailing to real-time transit tracking and mobile fare payments—in just 15 years.
Transportation operations technology also has changed dramatically in a relatively short time—both in its capabilities and the priority given to it by decision-makers. Twenty years ago, “transportation operations” was an unfamiliar term for most transportation professionals. Today, thanks to the rapidly growing capabilities of technologies such as adaptive signal controls, it’s a mainstream topic.
The New Manual
This spring, the rising profile of operational methods in an industry traditionally focused on physical infrastructure will be highlighted when the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) publishes its first manual on transportation operations.
“It will be a 650-page one-stop shop for people who want to know anything and everything about transportation operations,” says my colleague Les Jacobson, WSP’s senior director for transportation operations strategies. “There will be content for senior managers who need an overview, and more-detailed guidance for those managing programs. It will cover best practices to integrate operations into project-development cycles and strategies for making active transportation, such as walking and biking, safer. The largest section will be devoted to tactics—all the things a highway, road or transit agency can do to operate their systems efficiently.”
Les led the WSP team that collaborated with AASHTO, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program and FHWA to develop the manual with expert panels and stakeholders during the last five years. When we spoke recently, Les discussed how much operations technology has improved since the first deployment of ramp metering and adaptive signal controls.
“There’s vastly more data available now with connected vehicles, and the operational algorithms and control mechanisms have become infinitely more sophisticated and effective,” he said.
According to Les, updating readers on the new capabilities of transportation operations technology is one of the manual’s goals. “Adaptive signals, for example, have been around for a long time. But new capabilities with big data and AI (artificial intelligence) make it possible to assess and mitigate congestion much more quickly.”
Growing Use of Technology
A great example of how signal-control capabilities have improved can be seen in Los Angeles, where the city recently commissioned an updated Advanced Traffic Surveillance and Control system to help Angelenos move more efficiently and prepare for the 2028 Olympics. According to news reports, the ATSAC manages signals at 4,850 intersections—up from 118 in the legacy system in place when Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Olympics.
Les points out that such new technology allows much more effective transit signal prioritization.
“In early systems, prioritization was limited to specific intersections,” he says. “With modern technology, a systems approach can be used that monitors an entire transit system, with signal timing responding to real-time updates based on ridership levels, traffic conditions and other factors.”
Les also foresees hard-braking sensors—a capability in connected vehicles and many smartphones—coming into play for highway-incident management. “This is not common yet, but with more data and connected vehicles, we’ll begin to see this soon.”
According to Les, emerging approaches such as active-demand management—in which incentives or regulations are created to distribute travel to less-congested times of day, alternate modes or alternate routes—are made possible by operational technology. And he and his team see the potential for operations technology to facilitate new mobility options for disadvantaged and underserved riders who need help moving from their homes to a transit station. “This area is called ‘first-last mile.’ Pilot projects have been developed, but so far they’re mostly on campuses such as universities or large workplaces.”
In long-term transportation planning, operational methods also can be an alternative to widening congested highway corridors. As agencies seek to improve the equity and effectiveness of their transportation network, these new tools and approaches are increasingly being utilized.
And like other long-time pros in this field, Les and I are amazed and heartened by how transportation operations have become mainstream.
The AASHTO manual, which details big-picture ideas, technical guidance and practical advice, will no doubt foster greater integration of operations technology into transportation planning.