Tracking Highway Congestion

Tracking Highway Congestion

A nationwide information system that can track the locations and speeds of hundreds of thousands of trucks on U.S. highways is much more than a wild-eyed notion.

For eight years, the American Transportation Research Institute and Federal Highway Administration have been building a system that tracks 650,000 trucks — most of them heavy rigs hauling industrial freight — on major interstate highways.

 The data they collect, with the cooperation of trucking companies and other equipment operators, is helping to pinpoint the worst highway bottlenecks, primarily on urban interstate exchanges, but that’s just the beginning of its potential benefits.

Increasingly, the Freight Performance Measures initiative will help federal, state and local governments use truck-generated data on congestion and traffic flows to support transportation policy decisions, including where to spend infrastructure dollars.

Eventually, it will help motor carriers improve their own operations by providing data that can be used to analyze routes in a number of ways, ATRI says.

The FPM initiative will support broad efforts at the Department of Transportation to collect hard data on trucking and other transportation modes to better plan infrastructure spending. “In order to best understand what corridors need the most work, we need to understand existing and emerging flows of freight,” Peter Appel, head of the DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration, said in April.

States are just as eager for reliable data. “This type of analysis represents important progress toward incorporating real truck operations data into freight transportation planning and decision-making,” Keith Bucklew, director of freight mobility at the Indiana Department of Transportation, said of ATRI’s analysis.

“Timely and accurate information on freight movement will benefit both government and the private sector in making transportation decisions,” Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez said last month.

Within a year, the private sector and general public will have access to that information through FPMWeb, a free tool that will be available on the Internet, said Daniel Murray, ATRI’s vice president of research.

FPMWeb is in the beta testing stage, he said. “Our initial target was government, but probably a third of our requests (for access to FPMWeb) have come from the private sector, including large trucking companies that want to use it to develop more efficient routing. They can request a user account and play with 25 corridors worth of data.”

Until now, truck and travel data on that scale hasn’t been available. “If you’re going to focus on freight management, you need freight data,” Murray said.

ATRI and the FHWA began tracking trucks in 2002. “We started some preliminary data collection to test the viability and feasibility of setting up a software system that could process truck position data,” Murray said. The system expanded over the years to its current size through agreements with truck operators that include “rigid nondisclosure” clauses that protect company data, he said. “We have all fleet sizes in all sectors,” he said. “It’s slightly weighted toward larger truckload carriers, but not dramatically so.”

The data is transmitted from satellite positioning systems already installed in truck cabs and used by carriers to track their fleets and communicate with drivers. Using data from the carriers, the FPM program tracks trucks and their speeds. That alone provides a wealth of opportunity to analyze when and where freight is moving, and why it’s not.

“Recently, we’ve been looking at where trucks are parked legally and where they’re parked illegally,” Murray said. “We can use that data to go to a state and say, ‘Look, you need to add truck parking here because there’s not enough legal parking available.’ ”

The system’s biggest benefit to date is the annual analysis of congestion bottlenecks on the interstate highway network. This year, ATRI and the FHWA used the FPM data to produce congestion severity rankings for 100 locations, up from 30 locations last year. “Next year, we’re hoping to rank 200 or 250 locations,” Murray said. (To see the full list of rankings, Click Here.)

In 2009, the worst bottleneck in the country was the I-290 interchange with I-90 and I-94 in Chicago, where the average speed at 5 p.m. drops to 15 mph. The average peak hour speed is 23 mph, and the average non-peak hour speed is only 33 mph.

“The long-term benefit is in getting transportation investment to focus on these bottlenecks,” Murray said. “As an industry, we’ve complained for years that highways don’t get their fair share” of funding. The FPM data can help change that, he said.

ATRI and the FHWA are looking for new ways to use the data, partnering with universities and states, Murray said. As carriers begin to use the system to benchmark their own routing, more innovative ideas will pop up, he said.

“We already have carriers asking us not just what’s the fastest or cheapest route,” he said, “but what’s the greenest route.”

Contact William B. Cassidy at