CTS Report December 2011

Share this:

University of Minnesota startup to improve traffic flow on congested roads

Henry Liu

The University of Minnesota’s Office of Technology Commercialization recently signed a licensing agreement with startup company SMART Signal Technologies Inc. to commercialize a traffic management system developed by civil engineering professor Henry Liu.

The SMART Signal system collects traffic data from signal controllers and generates realtime arterial performance measures. Traffic engineers can use this information to improve traffic flow on roads controlled by traffic lights—reducing congestion and saving drivers both time and fuel. “The technology itself provides both hardware and software solutions to evaluate the performance of traffic signals and measures the traffic conditions on signalized roads,” explains Liu.

SMART Signal will also give drivers a more accurate prediction of travel times by accounting for time spent waiting at traffic lights. Unlike on highways, there isn’t a system currently in place to accurately track congestion on roads with traffic signals using existing equipment.

SMART Signal is installed along Hwy. 55 in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

“Once you get off the freeway, people have no idea how long it takes to get through lights,” says Ken Shain, president and CEO of SMART Signal. Shain hopes to make these travel time data available to drivers.

The St. Paul startup aims to make the traffic management system affordable for municipalities to implement by allowing them to use existing equipment. The SMART Signal system has already been field-tested on three major arterials in Minnesota: Highway 55 in Golden Valley, France Avenue in Bloomington, and Prairie Center Drive in Eden Prairie. It is also being used in Pasadena, California.

The technology was invented by Liu and his research team. Funding for the system has come from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Institute (a part of CTS), the Minnesota Local Road Research Board, and the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, with in-kind support from Hennepin County. Traffic engineering staff from MnDOT and Hennepin County worked closely with Liu to facilitate testing and implementation of the system on several corridors in the Twin Cities.

More information:

AirTAP forum focuses on service, safety, sustainability

Jeff Hamiel

The 2011 Airport Technical Assistance Program (AirTAP) Fall Forum, held October 6 and 7 in Breezy Point, Minnesota, drew 65 attendees from across the state to learn from aviation experts and their colleagues in sessions centered on the theme of “Securing the Future of Your Airport.”

The forum kicked off with opening remarks by Jim Grothaus, AirTAP director; Shaun Germolus, airport manager for the Chisholm/Hibbing airport and vice president of the Minnesota Council of Airports (MCOA); Christopher Roy, director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Office of Aeronautics; and Steve Obenauer, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Minneapolis Airports District Office.

In one forum session, Jeff Hamiel, executive director of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) and chair of the CTS Executive Committee, discussed how service, safety, and sustainability play a role in securing the future of the MAC airports (consisting of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and six reliever airports).

“If you run an airport of any size, your primary responsibility is providing high-quality customer service for people who rely on you for their services,” Hamiel began.

One of the MAC’s efforts to improve customer service was the formation of the Customer Service Action Council, which includes representatives from the airlines, the Transportation and Security Administration, concessionaires, other tenants, and the flying public.

A goal of the MAC’s security and safety program, which is part of its overall customer service improvement effort, is to prevent accidents and incursions, Hamiel explained. The MAC has recently reduced the number of incursions through staff training; improved airfield lighting, painting, and signage; regular meetings with tenants and the FAA; and safety brochures for transient pilots. Reliever airport security has been improved by urging airports to secure aircraft and report suspicious activity, enhancing fencing and gate access controls, and developing airport watch programs.


Airport sustainability means taking responsibility to save energy, cut costs, “and make things better for people in general,” Hamiel said. Over 10 years, the MAC has saved $14.4 million in expenses by taking actions to reduce the cost of utilities, such as replacing all the ventilations systems and replacing every light bulb in parking facilities with more energy-efficient lighting.

Customer service was also the focus of a dialogue led by Howard Hansen, owner of Howard Hansen Consulting and a member of the Detroit Lakes airport commission. Many general aviation airports lack the resources to have staff on the field, but there are things they can do to make the airport more attractive, Hansen said. For example, someone should be inspecting it every day. It’s also important to talk to airport users and establish a way to regularly and intentionally gather feedback from them. “Customer satisfaction drives profit,” he said.

In another session, John Ostrom with the MAC’s MSP wildlife management team and Alan Schumacher, USDA Wildlife Services, reminded attendees that the presence of wildlife at their airport is a safety hazard they are responsible for. “You own the problem…you can’t just say [a wildlife strike] is an act of God,” Ostrom said. Airports that receive federal funding must comply with FAA standards, such as conducting a wildlife assessment.

Blaine Peterson, Duluth Airport Authority, shared ways Duluth International has made operations more sustainable. Examples include relamping airport lights from 32 watts to 28 and installing timers to turn off lights and baggage belts when not in use. Many of the efforts qualified for energy rebates.

The fall forum also featured a walking tour of Pine River Municipal Airport, where attendees learned about pavement maintenance and airport lighting and tested several types of pyrotechnics for managing wildlife. Other forum sessions covered airport emergency planning, the State Aviation System Plan, and FAA certification requirements for access to residential property adjacent to an airport. (A complete list of sessions is available on the AirTAP website.)

The forum was sponsored by Minnesota AirTAP (housed within CTS) and the MnDOT Office of Aeronautics, in cooperation with the FAA and MCOA. More coverage of the forum will be published on the AirTAP website and in a special issue of Briefings, the program’s quarterly newsletter, in early 2012.

Winter luncheon: how transportation shapes cities

Michel Parent

From the days of antiquity to modern times, cities have always adapted to and been shaped by new transportation technologies, says Michel Parent. At the CTS Winter Luncheon on February 14, Parent will use the example of the greater Paris region to explore how new transportation technologies can help cities meet the challenges of mobility—for people as well as goods—while satisfying the constraints of ecology and quality of life.

Parent is scientific advisor to IMARA (Computer Science, Mathematics and Control for the Automated Road), a project team from the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA). This team focuses on the research and development of information and communication technologies for road transport, in particular on fully automated vehicles (cybercars). Parent was the creator and director of this team between 1991 and 2010 and is considered the “father” of the cybercar concept.

In his presentation, Parent will describe how intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technologies can transform the way private automobiles are used and how the vehicle industry might be affected. In particular, Parent will talk about the European CityMobil project. Scheduled for completion this month, the project explored how automation in transportation can help improve mobility in cities.

The luncheon is cosponsored by the ITS Institute, a part of CTS.

Sustainability Forum: translating research to benefit urban communities

Lawrence A. Baker

Leading thinkers and practitioners from Minnesota and throughout the world came to the St. Paul campus on November 2 and 3 for the Twin Cities Urban Sustainability Forum.

The goal of the forum was to strengthen and expand linkages among the practitioners and academics involved in urban sustainability and urban ecosystems in the Twin Cities and develop a framework for “translational research”—research that would connect the sustainability goals of Minnesota’s urban communities with research and outreach at the University of Minnesota.

Forum co-organizers were Lawrence A. Baker, research professor in the Department of Bioproducts & Biosystems Engineering, and Carissa Schively Slotterback, associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The event was funded by the McKnight Foundation, the National Science Foundation, CTS, and the University’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA).

Carissa Schively Slotterback

One panel session focused on the research and outreach activities of four U of M centers. Speakers were Laurie McGinnis, director of CTS; Ed Goetz, director of CURA; John Carmody, director of the Center for Sustainable Building Research; and Tim Smith, director of the Institute on the Environment’s Northstar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise.

The directors gave highlights of their centers’ research related to sustainability—ranging from pervious pavement to alternative fuels to building design guidelines—and described how external stakeholders help shape their research agendas. Centers are “portals” that allow outside agencies to approach the University more easily with their research needs. Centers also help to bridge the gap between short-term, smaller-scale stakeholder research needs and the longer-term academic perspective. McGinnis noted that CTS actively facilitates matches between research teams and agencies and nurtures engagement between researchers and practitioners.

Another session featured presentations by three U of M researchers: Yingling Fan, assistant professor in the Humphrey School; Julian Marshall, assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering; and Baker.

Yingling Fan

Fan discussed research under way through a new research partnership between the University and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Fan and co-principal investigator Simone French of the Department of Epidemiology and Community Health are investigating the outdoor leisure time activity needs of different family types and the impact of neighborhood park design on family health and well-being.

Marshall presented highlights from recent research exploring how urban form and transportation relate to air quality and physical activity. One study, for example, found that cities with transit systems and less-dispersed populations have lower (population weighted) concentrations of certain air pollutants. Other research indicates that policies to increase “active travel” are likely to generate large individual health benefits as well as smaller but population-wide benefits through reductions in air and noise pollution.

Julian Marshall

Baker described several of his projects, including a project for the City of Prior Lake, Minnesota, that is quantifying nutrients removed through street sweeping. He also described outreach methods that help “science meet the street,” such as the sharing of tools and databases.

Two other panels focused on federal and state agency perspectives; speakers included Derrell Turner, division administrator with the Minnesota Office of the Federal Highway Administration and member of the CTS Executive Committee, and Nick Thompson, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

A series of smaller workshops over the next year will synthesize ideas from the forum into a framework for translational research.

PowerPoints and videos

Transition strategies could aid public acceptance of mileage-based user fees

Analysts and policymakers are exploring the potential for mileage-based user fees (MBUFs) to supplement or replace the fuel tax, but the public is wary of the approach. At a Rethinking Transportation Finance Roundtable, Paul Sorensen, an operations researcher at the RAND Corporation and lead author of two national MBUF studies, discussed possible transition strategies—such as voluntary adoption and value-added services—that could build public acceptance.

The roundtable, held September 21 in Minneapolis, was cosponsored by the State and Local Policy Program (SLPP) of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the Citizens League, and CTS. Lee Munnich, senior fellow and SLPP director, gave welcoming remarks.

The MBUF approach provides a more stable and equitable transportation revenue stream than the fuel tax, Sorensen said. It also offers the ability to pursue additional policy goals, such as structuring fees to reduce congestion or emissions.

Transitioning to MBUFs, however, hinges in part on public acceptance. Privacy appears to be the public’s main concern, “despite multiple methods of protecting it,” Sorensen said. Other public concerns include system complexity, use of MBUFs as a “stalking horse” for higher taxes, and fear of the unknown—compounded by low trust in government.

Three potential strategies could address these concerns, he said. The first is to start small with limited user groups and tests, such as recent efforts in Oregon and Iowa. (MnDOT is also conducting a test with 500 people from Hennepin and Wright Counties.)

The second is to provide user choice about payment and privacy methods. For example, users could pay a default flat rate based on odometer readings or choose to qualify for reduced rates based on GPS readings or off-peak use in urban areas.

The third strategy combines voluntary adoption with value-added services. Vendors could compete to provide services that, for example, enable pay-as-you-drive insurance, automatic parking payment, or real-time navigational assistance and traffic alerts. Sorensen pointed out that people readily accept location services—and less privacy—on their smartphones. Likewise, if an MBUF system offers additional value, “it becomes a more attractive proposition,” he said.

Value-added services and apps, he continued, could become revenue generators—a prospect prompting firms to ask: “How would Steve Jobs design an MBUF?”

Prior to his presentation, Sorensen met with members of a state task force that was formed to identify and evaluate issues related to potential implementation of an MBUF in Minnesota. The Humphrey School of Public Affairs and MnDOT staff facilitated the task force process and provided technical advice. A report from the task force is due early next year.

CTS joins international research effort

International collaboration is an increasing priority for solving critical transportation challenges. CTS has been invited to join one such collaborative effort: EUTRAIN, a two-year project funded by the European Commission.

The goal of EUTRAIN is to develop a framework for international collaboration in transportation research, thus shaving the time and resources needed to tackle issues and discover breakthroughs separately. CTS is one of about ten non-European organizations participating in the project as a member of the Network of Associated Entities. Other network members include the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Transportation Research Board (TRB), and agencies from nations such as China and Chile.

Laurie McGinnis, CTS director, attended the first meeting of the network in Brussels in October. A second meeting will be held during the annual TRB meeting in January.

EUTRAIN will build upon existing experience and recommend actions and policies ripe for implementation. “With our participation,” McGinnis says, “CTS and the University of Minnesota will be well-positioned to respond to research proposals when topics emerge.”

The European Conference of Transport Research Institutes (ECTRI) is leading EUTRAIN for the European Union. A delegation of ECTRI members toured the University of Minnesota campus and CTS in 2010 as part of a scan tour of U.S. transportation research facilities.

Exhibitors sought for career expo

The 2012 Transportation Career Expo will be held February 28 from 4:30 to 7:15 p.m. at Coffman Memorial Union on the Minneapolis campus.

The expo allows companies and agencies to network with students and recent graduates and tell them about their organizations and job opportunities. It also offers an opportunity for professional organizations to reach out to students as potential members.

For more information, contact Shawn Haag at 612-625-5608, haag0025@umn.edu.