A Cyclist's View of Intelligent Transportation Systems

By Tom Revay revayt@usa.net May 10, 1998

Recently, I attended two days of the ITS America Annual Meeting which ran from May 4 through 8, 1998 in Detroit, Michigan. ITS America is a non-profit organization that promotes Intelligent Transportation Systems. Most of the conference attendees represented commercial firms, research institutions and government agencies, who together seek primarily technological solutions to commuting congestion.

As a cyclist commuter, I have similar goals. As an engineer, I enjoy working with emerging technologies. As a human being, I would promote livable cities and accessible countryside, in which vehicles serve the traveler's needs, and not vice versa. I believe there is a place for technology and for human-powered vehicles in the future of transport.

Generally speaking, I think the ITS America organization is sincere in desiring good traffic planning, and finding ways to ease congestion. However, there doesn't seem to be a problem to which their answer isn't, "Throw a lot of money, computing machinery, signage and asphalt at it, and maybe it'll get better."

The bicycle as a commuting vehicle was noticeably absent from the conference schedule, with only one break-out session even mentioning it in the conference guidebook. Although the word "intermodal" was used frequently, in this context it meant "build parking lots at train and bus stations," with bikes on public transport never considered.

As mentioned, the proposed solutions to traffic problems were consistently expensive and involved a lot of new technology, electronics, construction and paving. During one discussion on in-vehicle navigation devices, the presenter was asked whether these units would inadvertently cause traffic jams by directing motor vehicle travelers onto the same routes.

Here was the presenter's response:

First, this is a problem we'd love to have, because it means everyone is listening to us, and paying for it. Secondly, once the alternate routes become congested, their travel times will begin to match the main routes, so travelers will be directed to stay on the main routes, and they'll balance each other. And third, if both the main roads and the alternates are jammed, then no amount of information is going to solve your problem. You either have to get some new roads, or you have to wait.

In other words, nobody had the idea that fewer cars means less congestion, full stop. The least expensive and quickest way to fix the problem is to have fewer motor-vehicle miles, and that can only be accomplished by having people either travel less, commute via grouped transportation, or commute by pedal or foot.

There were lots of cool toys on display on the trade show floor, all at various stages of design and release. One of the most ambitious of these new products is the "Auto PC." This is an in-vehicle personal computer, connected to on-line services for navigation, traffic information, hotel and restaurant reservations, and other travel utilities.

Several implementations of this computer were on display at the Intel booth. Theirs was the largest booth at the trade show, and it was shared by several manufacturers of these Microsoft Windows CE machines displaying navigation, messaging and email software that communicated using cellular connections.

Plans for installing these devices in consumer vehicles are underway. At the closing meeting, we heard from a representative of Becker, a German division of the US-based Harmon group, who manufacture high-end car audio electronics. He detailed plans for personal computing systems that will let "the kids in the back seat play Nintendo." Hearing that, I wondered out loud, "What's wrong with 'I Spy'?". The conference attendee next to me continued my thought, saying, "The last thing I want to have follow me around in my car is email."

Despite the excitement of their manufacturers, plans to install these wonders are not yet full-speed-ahead. Representatives from Chrysler, Ford, GM and Toyota didn't think much of the Auto PC as an automobile manufacturer's option (as opposed to an after-market add-on, which is what it is now). They complained that its cost ($800 - $1000) made it a difficult accessory to sell, that its margins were far slimmer than car dealers will tolerate, and its desirability to most drivers was low.

In addition, some recent safety studies on car cell-phone use were discussed. Some of these studies have suggested that driver distraction was related to complex or involved telephone conversations, and not necessarily to the activities of manipulating the telephone, itself.  This suggests that "hands-free" telephones are not necessarily safer than handset-type phones in keeping the vehicle operator concentrated on his or her driving. The safety researcher who presented this information asserted that a 0.8 second increase in reaction time in a potential rear-end collision situation when traveling at speed-limit on the highway spelled the difference between having no accident at all, or a collision at or near 30 MPH. He called this type of result "a serious accident, in which air-bags deploy and injuries are likely."

Thus, the more devices inserted into the automobile, the more potentially dangerous distractions to driver concentration could occur. Furthermore, these deadly delays in reaction times seem to be more connected with driver inattention than with handling of car accessories. None of this bodes well for the Auto PC.

In-vehicle navigation is happening right now, of course. I've used the NavTech databases to get me around northern Virginia. Integration with traffic information is happening, too, as demonstrations from Siemens showed. And a professor from the University of Michigan reported that voice commands given to drivers have an odd effect upon them: a significant number of people, told by their in-vehicle navigation units to "Get in the right lane now," simply swung in to the lane, without looking for a safe merge, and nearly caused accidents. Somehow, these drivers assumed that The Voice wouldn't tell them to do anything harmful!

One expensive solution to the driver-distraction problem could emerge from work being done at Ohio State University. Films and photographs of the OSU Autonomous Vehicles at their booth displayed an automobile capable of self-guidance on a specially constructed track. Such an automobile could be driven to a freeway equipped with guidance technologies. The car would drive itself to the proper exit, maintaining safe distances using radar-like collision- avoidance sensing. (That technology is currently being specified and developed, with substantial research going on at the Cambridge, Mass. offices of the US Department of Transportation.)

I found most of these toys, gadgets and ideas to be depressing news for commuting cyclists, because it appeared we we are not even on the Intelligent Transportation Systems' radar screen.

It was made more depressing (in my opinion) by the City of Detroit, a city that was built on autos -- and shows it. Its streets are wide, its cars travel at high speed, its sidewalks have few pedestrians and its downtown appeared impoverished, nearly lifeless, and not welcoming to human beings.  (For an agonizing look at the decline of this city, see http://www.walshcol.edu/~moran/detphot/detroit.html.)

For example, the local telephone company, Ameritech, has a building of approximately 24 stories in height, built in 1973. One side of the building, facing a major street, has no windows -- it's simply a gigantic face of polished granite, all the way to the top. Standing beneath its presence gives one the eerie feeling that one might be one of the the apes discovering the slab in Kuprick's 2001. It also communicates the message "Go Away!" in the unsubtle language of carcatecture.

Detroit's downtown was active and invigorating only in pockets like Greektown, a short street of two- and three-story buildings with restaurants and shops below, and apartments above. Somehow, this vein of life was left standing amid vacant lots, poured-concrete bunkers and towering skyscrapers. Since my visit, I've learned that current plans will remedy this unassimilated territory by placing a huge, modern and dehumanizing casino here.  (Resistance is futile!)

I was pleased to see any bikes at all roaming this Jurassic Park-like landscape. The four cyclists I saw in two days consisted of three urban poor people, and one bike messenger on a bright blue, week-old Bianchi Volpe. When I complemented him on his bike, he smiled broadly, and seemed very surprised that someone noticed it.

I suppose that complements on one's bicycle are rare in Detroit. But what messenger rides a beautiful, brand-new bike like that in Boston?

As the ITS America conference was packing up, a new conference for the Society of Automotive Engineers was starting, and over in the Renaissance Center, General Motors' were busy remodeling the buildings as their new corporate headquarters. Reportedly, the company paid $72 million for a complex that cost $350 million to build some 20 years ago.  Its massive columns of glass and steel effectively block any view of the Detroit River from Jefferson Avenue, and provide a visual aid in understanding the meaning of the term banal.  In the words of GM Vice Chairman Harry Pearce:

When I stood on the street ... and looked up at this complex and went through the tunnel over to Windsor and looked at this complex across the Detroit River, I said to myself, 'That looks like the global headquarters of the kind of company GM is becoming.'

Murals in these buildings announced "GM's Vision" as a green, but industrialized utopia, where cars roamed pleasant countrysides and sparkling cities.

There were no bicycles in GM's Vision. But there are still a few left in Detroit, and at least one is brand new.

[Return to MassBike] [Online Resources]