Why smart roads make smart sense

Collins says that even with large infrastructure investment, the transport network will still see pressure points.

Howard Collins, Chief Operations Officer for Transport for NSW, discusses the potential impact of smart roads on modern transport infrastructure.

Howard Collins is all about solving problems. Whether it was when he was in charge of the London Underground, or in his current role as the Chief Operations Officer for Transport for NSW, he knows the future of getting people from A to B in the quickest, non-congested manner, is in the hands of latest technologies.

At the recent Roads and Traffic Expo held at the ICC in Sydney, he gave a speech about smart motorways. He knows that as the population rises – and even with investment in infrastructure, whether it be new tunnel systems or light rail – there are going to be pressure points. And it’s part of his job to foresee those pressure points and make sure they don’t become an issue.

What is a smart motorway?

“Smart motorways, as it suggests, is a way of managing issues on roads so that we get the maximum flow out of the ‘pipe’,” he says.

The ‘pipe’ is the metaphor he uses to describe the issue of getting people from one place to another on a limited piece of real estate – after all, a pipe can take only so much pressure at a time – if you push it too hard, it will burst. However, if you manage it correctly, it will flow smoothly.

“If you get a blockage occasionally [in that pipe], you get a flood,” he says. “[It’s the same with motorways], you get people who complain about why they’re stuck on the motorway,” he says.

“And even if you unblock the other end, 50 minutes later, despite the announcement on the radio that the accident or the smash has been cleared, vehicles are still trickling through that pipe to get to the other end. Every one of us who’s driven in Sydney, has experienced…some sort of delay as a result of that.”

Collins points out that using technology is nothing new. Even 50 years ago, in London, they knew the benefits of smart technology to help with traffic flows.

“In 1968, on the railways of London Underground, we started using technology to manage the flow by using very large computers and some fantastic technology to move trains along automatically – to connect the train with the track,” he says. “City Metro is another form of smart motorway, but a smart railway in the fact that we’re using the ability to get carriages together to flow them in the correct way and use that technology.”

One of his favourite technologies is ramp metering, which has come into play over recent years on Sydney’s motorways, especially the M4.

“What we’ve done with this smart technology is tried to ensure we give you a more consistent drive. How do we do that? Well, it’s all about giving you information to ensure that you do the right thing,” he says.

“One of these technologies is what people call ramp metering. We use a version of it at Town Hall station in Sydney. When it gets a little bit too busy, we close some of the gates off – very frustrating for those who want to get down on the platforms – but it’s stopping the flow of people going onto the platform and thus overcrowding and then causing that blockage in that point.”

It’s the same on the M4, he says. It’s about slowing the vehicles down and entering that pipe. He believes ramp metering has reduced the number of accidents and incidents that have occurred on the motorways, as using the method controls the flow of traffic in an effective way.

It’s also about managing speeds, as Collins explains.

“Now, it’s obvious sometimes that if there’s an accident or lane delay, the signing will change,” he says. “And I know as motorists, if you can’t see people road working, you think ‘Why on earth are they slowing me down?’

“And if there’s obstruction ahead, you may not be able to see it, but you need to get out of that lane and get to the next time lane because very soon, you’re going to come across that obstruction. The beauty with smart motorways really is about ensuring that we assist you give you plenty of warning.”

One of the outcomes of a smart motorway and controlling the flow of traffic in such a way is that even though you are slowing down traffic in order to control the flow, people will more than likely get to their destination quicker because of that control. Without it, there would be chaos – people ducking in and out and causing a lot of stop/start issues of flow. Collins knows this can cause incidents, but it is getting better.

Smart motorways can help to reduce congestion, improving travel times for motorists.

“It might be frustrating as you think you want to do 100 kilometres an hour and the sign says 80 or 60, but it is there because it has been scientifically proven to give you the smoothest journey,” he says.

The technology that controls the flow on the motorways in NSW cost $600 million, which Collins acknowledges is a lot. However, he also cites the data collected since the sensors and periphery products such as software and hardware have been installed, shows it is having a positive effect.

“The motorways are safer. Data from December 2020 has shown we’ve had 40 per cent fewer incidents/accidents on those sections of the road that are now smart,”
he says.

“Also, journey times have improved by 20 per cent. Isn’t that a great thing for all of us? Putting this technology in has been a great idea. And certainly, it has improved safety and the ability for us to move volumes.”

What’s next on the agenda in smart technology for roads? In Collins mind it is connecting the vehicles, and other transport options like trains. He thinks this is important because it will help optimise the capacity of the motorway system.

“Connecting those vehicles and allowing for smart technology to get to the next generation, is important,” he says. “Because that’s what mass transit does. If you travel on Sydney Metro, the trains – ie the pipe – are all talking to each other in real time. Those trains can get closer together, you can get higher volumes, take out the human error. With technology, you can deliver a much better outcome. And you might be saying ‘well, when’s that going to happen?’ Sooner than you think, when you think of how technology is moving forward.”

Collins believes Australians will embrace technology in terms of electrification of vehicles. He says the country is slow off the mark. He was in Canada recently, and he noticed there were 150 charging stations at the local shopping mall. He also saw a large volume of fully electric cars.

“It’s a changing world out there,” he says. “What that technology allows us to think about is how we can connect those vehicles, whatever the make they are, to our smart motorway network.”

“If you’ve driven in Los Angeles in the past 10 years, no matter how wide that roadway in that pipe is, if the volume of those vehicles it too large, you will end up with the same traffic jam and the same frustration. It’s important that in our future world, we provide smart technology, we give people alternatives. And we provide that solution which is multimodal.”

“We’re a car city. We’re a place where only 16 per cent to 17 per cent of the people use public transport. We must provide roads for cars, but we need to provide them in a smarter way.”

This article was originally published in the July edition of our magazine. To read the magazine, click here.



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