Category Archives: Research

General research posts.

Work-zone warnings could soon be delivered to your smartphone

Imagine that you’re driving to work as usual when your smartphone announces, “Caution, you are approaching an active work zone.” You slow down and soon spot orange barrels and highway workers on the road shoulder. Thanks to a new app being developed by University of Minnesota researchers, this scenario is on its way to becoming reality.

“Drivers often rely on signs along the roadway to be cautious and slow down as they approach a work zone. However, most work-zone crashes are caused by drivers not paying attention,” says Chen-Fu Liao, senior systems engineer at the U’s Minnesota Traffic Observatory. “That’s why we are working to design and test an in-vehicle work-zone alert system that announces additional messages through the driver’s smartphone or the vehicle’s infotainment system.”

As part of the project, sponsored by MnDOT, Liao and his team investigated the use of inexpensive Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) tags to provide in-vehicle warning messages. The BLE tags were programmed to trigger spoken messages in smartphones within range of the tags, which were placed on construction barrels or lampposts ahead of a work zone.

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The researchers also developed two applications for the project. First, they designed a smartphone app to trigger the audio-visual messages in vehicle-mounted smartphones entering the range of the BLE work-zone tags. A second app allows work-zone contractors to update messages associated with the BLE tags remotely, in real time, to provide information on current conditions such as workers on site, changes in traffic, or hazards in the environment.

Field tests proved the system works. “We found that while traveling at 70 miles per hour, our app is able to successfully detect a long-range BLE tag placed more than 400 feet away on a traffic barrel on the roadway shoulder,” Liao says. “We also confirmed the system works under a variety of conditions, including heavy traffic and inclement weather.”

“This was a proof of concept that showed that smartphones can receive Bluetooth signals at highway speeds and deliver messages to drivers,” says Ken Johnson, work-zone, pavement marking, and traffic devices engineer at MnDOT. “Future research will look into how we should implement and maintain a driver alert system.”

This future work includes using the results of a human factors study currently under way at the U’s HumanFIRST Laboratory to create recommendations for the in-vehicle message phrasing and structure. Then, researchers plan to conduct a pilot implementation with multiple participants to further evaluate the system’s effectiveness.

According to MnDOT, another phase of the project may investigate how to effectively maintain the BLE tag database. This phase could also investigate implementation options, such as how MnDOT can encourage drivers to download and use the app.

Taconite byproduct reduces road wear from studded tires

In a recent project, the Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) used a byproduct of Minnesota’s taconite mining industry for a section of the Alaska Glenn Highway.

The taconite byproduct—Mesabi sand—serves as the aggregate of a sand-seal treatment for a 4,600-foot stretch of the highway just north of Anchorage. Sand seals are an application of a sealer, usually an emulsion, immediately followed by a light covering of a fine aggregate (the sand).

“Our goal was to explore pavement preservation measures that extend pavement life and that also resist studded tire wear,” says Newton Bingham, central region materials engineer with the Alaska DOT. “Studded tires are allowed from mid-September until mid-April, and they cause rapid pavement wear.”

For the project, the Alaska DOT obtained sample pavement cores from the test area in 2014. Researchers then applied sand seals with two different hard aggregates—calcined bauxite and the Mesabi sand—to the surface of the cores to evaluate the effectiveness of each treatment.

Larry Zanko, senior research program manager of the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) at the University of Minnesota Duluth, was the on-site representative for the taconite sand analysis. NRRI focuses on strategies to recover and utilize mineral-resource-based byproducts such as taconite and find potential beneficial end-uses for them.

“Taconite is one of the hardest natural aggregates,” he says. “Minnesota’s taconite mining industry generates tens of millions of tons of byproduct materials every year that could be used as pavement aggregate. Friction aggregates could be a higher-value niche for the industry.”

Testing of the sand-seals showed similar wear resistance for both types of aggregates. “We chose taconite sand since it is available from Minnesota as an industrial byproduct, whereas calcined bauxite sand has to be imported from nations on the Pacific Rim and costs more due to shipping,” Bingham says.

The Alaska DOT reports good performance to date on Glenn Highway and is funding ongoing pavement wear measurement.

NRRI researchers are also studying the use of taconite for other pavement applications. Funded by MnDOT, Zanko’s team developed (and later patented) a taconite compound for repairing pavement cracks and patching potholes (see an article the September 2016 Catalyst). The long-lasting patches reduce maintenance costs and traffic disruption. In continuing work funded by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board, researchers will refine the repair compound and develop and field-test a low-cost mechanized system for pavement and pothole repairs.

Videos trace progress in traffic operations, pavement design

Last month, CTS debuted two videos about the many contributions U of M researchers have made—and are still making—in traffic operations and pavement design.

The videos are one of the ways CTS is marking 30 years of transportation innovation. Our goal is to show how research progresses over time—from curiosity to discovery to innovation. The videos also show how U of M research meets the practical needs of Minnesotans in the Twin Cities metro and throughout the state.

The first video focuses on improving traffic operations, a research focus since our earliest days. Professor Emeritus Panos Michalopoulos invented Autoscope® technology to help transportation agencies capture video images of traffic and analyze the information, enabling better traffic management. Autoscope was commercialized in 1991, and the technology has been incorporated into products sold and used worldwide.

Current traffic operations research builds on this strong foundation. For example, the U’s Minnesota Traffic Observatory, directed by John Hourdos, develops data collection tools such as the Beholder camera system. The system is deployed on high-rise rooftops overlooking a stretch of I-94 in Minneapolis—an area with the highest crash frequency in Minnesota—to help the Minnesota Department of Transportation reduce congestion and improve safety.

The second video showcases U of M research on pavement design. Developing pavements that can stand up to Minnesota’s harsh climate is a continuing priority for researchers, whose work has led to new methods, tools, and specifications to extend pavement life. The video also looks at how research teams are pushing the envelope with use of materials such as taconite waste and graphene nano-platelets for pavement applications.

 

Bicycle commuting improves public health, reduces medical costs

According to the results of a new study, bicycle commuting in the Twin Cities metropolitan area reduces chronic illness and preventable deaths, saving millions of dollars annually in medical costs.

The findings are one component of a multifaceted project funded by MnDOT. In the final report, researchers in several U of M departments provide a comprehensive understanding of the economic impact and health effects of bicycling in Minnesota.

“MnDOT has long identified bicycling as an important part of the state’s multimodal transportation system,” says Tim Henkel, modal planning and program management assistant commissioner. “This first-ever study generated new information that will inform policy and program strategies on bicycling as we determine levels of future investment.”

Xinyi Qian, an Assistant Extension Professor in the U’s Tourism Center, was the project’s principal investigator. Dr. Mark Pereira of the School of Public Health, one of the co-investigators, led the health component of the project.

Pereira’s team began by measuring the amount of bicycle commuting among Twin Cities adults using data from the 2014 Minnesota State Survey. (The counties included were Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, and Washington.) The team found that 13.4 percent of working-age metro-area residents (244,000 adults) bicycle to work at least occasionally, and the average bicycle commuter rides 366 miles per year.

The researchers next estimated the number of deaths prevented from that amount of bicycling using the Health Economic Assessment Tool developed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Their analysis found that bicycle commuting in the metro area prevents 12 to 61 deaths per year, saving $100 million to $500 million annually. “At current levels, roughly 1 death per year is prevented for every 10,000 cyclists,” he says.

The WHO tool estimates savings from prevented deaths but not from prevented disease. To estimate the effect of bicycling commuting on illness, researchers conducted an online survey of Twin Cities cyclists; participants also included three commuter groups and a bicycle parts manufacturer.

“We learned that bicycling is linked to lower risk of metabolic syndrome, obesity, and hypertension,” Pereira says. “For example, taking three additional bicycle trips per week is associated with 46 percent lower odds of metabolic syndrome, 32 percent lower odds of obesity, and 28 percent lower odds of hypertension.”

The illness assessment provides relative risk estimates that planners can use in cost-benefit analyses. “Current methods only consider risk reductions related to death rates, so the benefit of infrastructure projects is underestimated,” Pereira says. “By providing an estimate of the risk reductions for diabetes and heart disease related to cycling, we provide an input that will help project planners more accurately represent the benefits of these projects.”

While the research was conducted in the Twin Cities, the methods can be used in other locations and to compare changes over time. “The findings also provide a foundation for transportation and health care officials to take action,” Pereira says, citing several options:

  • Promote active transportation through policies and intervention programs, e.g., employer incentives.
  • Develop consistent safety education and encouragement messages statewide to increase bicycle commuting.
  • Continue to encourage and implement safe bicycling to school and access to bicycles for youth across the state.

Transportation spending: How does Minnesota compare with other states?

Transportation funding continues to be a contentious issue in Minnesota: Are we spending enough, too little, too much? One way to help answer that question is to compare spending with other states.

“A simple comparison, however, may not accurately reflect the real level of transportation funding across the states,” says Jerry Zhao, an associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “States face different levels of demand and costs due to different geographic, demographic, or labor market conditions.”

To better understand the factors that influence the transportation funding level, Zhao and Professor Wen Wang at Rutgers University developed a cost-adjusted approach to systematically compare highway expenses among states. They found that while Minnesota spends more than average on highways, its spending level actually ranks low in cost-adjusted measures.

“We controlled for the effects of some major cost factors, such as demographics and natural weather conditions, which are outside of the control of state and local officials,” Zhao explains. “We found that natural weather conditions have a significant impact on highway spending—a lower winter temperature is associated with higher highway expenditures.”

The effect of population size isn’t as straightforward: “There is some impact of economy of scale, but only to a certain threshold,” he says. While urban areas have greater complexity, the higher population density is associated with less spending per capita, probably due to spreading the costs across a greater population.

The analysis also found that state and local governments tend to spend less on highways when they are under fiscal stress, and states with a higher gross domestic product (GDP) appeared to spend more on highways per capita. “Essentially, highway investment decisions may be greatly influenced by the economic fluctuations and fiscal stresses faced by a state,” he says.

According to unadjusted 2010 data, Minnesota ranks 8th on highway spending per capita and 18th on its share of statewide highway spending in GDP. “But after adjusting for those factors that are largely out of control by transportation policy, we found that Minnesota’s rankings drop to 37th on highway spending per capita and 41st on the share of highway spending in GDP,” Zhao says. “This suggests that the relatively high level of highway spending in Minnesota is largely driven by the cost factors of demographics and weather conditions.”

“This study confirms what MnDOT has experienced and that transportation financing is more complicated than one would expect,” says Tracy Hatch, MnDOT deputy commissioner. “Not only is Minnesota’s transportation system significantly undercapitalized—there are considerable financial impacts from factors outside of our control.”

The analysis was conducted as part of the U’s Transportation Policy and Economic Competitiveness Program (TPEC). In previous work, TPEC researchers created the Minnesota Transportation Finance Database, which compiles data about Minnesota’s transportation finance and shows the change of transportation spending in Minnesota over time.

Thicker may not equal stronger when building concrete roadways

Transportation agencies have long placed high importance on the thickness of their concrete roadways, making it a major focus of control and inspection during construction. While it is commonly believed thicker concrete pavements last longer, there is little data to support this claim.

“One big reason for the lack of data on the relationship between concrete pavement thickness and performance is the destructive nature of these measurements,” says Lev Khazanovich, a former professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering. “Concrete thickness is typically assessed by coring—a destructive, expensive, and time-consuming test that only offers widely spaced measurements of thickness.”

In a MnDOT-funded study, U of M researchers set out to fill this knowledge void by leveraging recent advances in the nondestructive testing of pavements that allow for large-scale, rapid collection of reliable measurements for pavement thickness and strength. They conducted four evaluations on three roadways in Minnesota using ultrasonic technology to collect more than 8,000 measurements in a dense survey pattern along with a continuous survey of observable distress.

“We found that both pavement thickness and stress measurements are highly variable, with a half-inch of variation in thickness about every 10 feet,” Khazanovich says. “Interestingly, three of the four surveys averaged less than design thickness, which is contrary to typical accounts of contractors building slightly thicker slabs in order to avoid compensation deductions.”

Data analysis showed that exceeding design thickness did not seem to increase or decrease pavement performance. However, a measurement of pavement strength and quality known as “shear wave velocity” did produce valuable findings. “A drop in the shear wave velocity strength measurement corresponded to an increase in observable pavement distresses such as cracking and crumbling,” Khazanovich explains. “This was especially apparent when we were able to easily identify locations of construction changes, where significant changes in shear wave velocity matched up with observable distress.”

The results of this study illustrate the importance of material quality control and uniformity during construction, since alterations in pavement strength and quality may significantly influence pavement performance. In addition, researchers say that despite inconclusive thickness results, it is still important that pavement has significant thickness to carry its intended traffic load over its service life. Finally, the study demonstrates that new methods of ultrasonic shear wave velocity testing are useful for identifying changes in construction and design that could lead to higher rates of pavement distress.

For millennials, car ownership and family life may not be obstacles to transit use

As the millennial generation comes of age, indications of a significant generational change in travel behavior have raised hopes of robust growth in transit use. As a whole, this generation owns fewer cars, drives fewer miles, and uses transit more than previous generations. However, one key question remains: will millennials continue their high rates of transit use as the economy improves and they increasingly settle down and start families?

“In older generations we have seen significant declines in transit use that coincide with the transition to family life and child rearing,” says Andrew Guthrie, a research fellow and Ph.D. candidate at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. To gain insight into the question of whether the millennial generation will be different, Guthrie looked for changes in the extent that two factors—young children in a household and access to a vehicle—affect transit use.

The study, conducted with Humphrey School associate professor Yingling Fan, looked for evidence of these bellwether changes in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul region between 2000 and 2010. This period saw the opening of the region’s first modern light-rail line as well as numerous bus system improvements, including a network of high-frequency local routes. In addition, the region has a strong, knowledge-based economy and has seen an in-migration of millennials.

The researchers used data from the detailed Travel Behavior Inventory conducted by the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council in 2000 and 2010 to compare travel behavior at both the trip and person levels.

Their analysis revealed that both young children in a household and access to an automobile have become “weakening obstacles” to transit use. “Specifically, research models show that participants with access to an automobile were more likely to use transit in 2010 than in 2000, and that participants with young children in their households were less likely than others to use transit in 2000 but not in 2010,” Guthrie says.

“Our models provide strong evidence that the basic relationship between transit use and the presence of young children in a household has changed, as has the relationship between transit use and access to an automobile,” Fan adds. “In fact, regardless of the specific modeling approach, these two traditional obstacles to transit use either weakened or disappeared entirely between 2000 and 2010 in the Twin Cities region.”

According to the researchers, the findings suggest that transit may now be better able to hold on to market share as its millennial users mature and start families, especially in urban areas where walk-and-ride trips are most common. In order to attract and accommodate these transit users, researchers believe ensuring an adequate supply of family housing and family-oriented community features such as high-quality schools and playgrounds in transit-served areas will be critical.

The research this paper was based on was part of a larger project funded by the Metropolitan Council and MnDOT. The paper was recently published in the Transportation Research Record.

Project seeks to ease traffic congestion in a roundabout way

Freeways and highways aren’t the only urban roads with traffic congestion, even though traffic management strategies have been largely directed toward improving traffic flows there. So, U of M researchers have taken to city streets to reduce congestion in an innovative—albeit roundabout—way.

“There’s been a lot of research focused on controlling congestion on major highways and freeways, but there’s relatively less when it comes to looking at controlling traffic on urban arterials,” says Ted Morris, a research engineer with the Department of Computer Science. “It’s a very different picture when you get into urban arterials and the traffic behaviors going on there, because of the dynamics of route choice, pedestrian interactions, and other factors.”Image of overhead view of roundabout

Morris is part of a research team that aims to create a framework for testing and evaluating new urban traffic sensing and control strategies for arterial networks. The goal is to balance safety and efficiency for all users—especially in places where new types of urban transportation facilities are planned in the next few years.

The team is using the 66th Street corridor in Richfield as a test bed for its research. The city, along with Hennepin County, is in the process of converting a series of signalized intersections along the route to roundabouts over the next few years. The roundabout designs also incorporate new facilities for pedestrians, bikes, and bus transit as part of a multimodal approach.

Initially, the researchers sought to create a larger network of interconnected sensors and a live test bed, Morris says. But funding limitations kept the project area to approximately 10 miles of arterial roads, a portion of which will be supported by a network of interconnected traffic sensors. The research team is instrumenting major intersections along 66th Street with a reliable, low-cost, high-resolution camera mounted on a center pole and supporting electronics as the intersections are being reconstructed.

“You can zoom in pretty closely to capture all the different movements and events that we need to use for measurement and detection,” Morris adds. “The key to this, to really make it reliable, is you need to very carefully quantify gap acceptance and how that varies in time and time of day. You also need to know how pedestrian activities interact with the traffic flow.”

The use of roundabouts has grown in the region because they cost less to build and maintain than signalized intersections, they meet the latest design standards, and they improve safety by reducing traffic conflicts. But predicting the capacity of roundabouts can be especially challenging when factoring in pedestrian traffic, uneven traffic origin-destination flow, heavy vehicle volumes, and approach vehicle gap-selection timing.

In addition to creating a sensor network to obtain real-time vehicle and pedestrian data to help control traffic and keep it flowing smoothly, the researchers also are developing a traffic simulation model that includes almost all of Richfield—more than 140 signalized intersections covering 21 square miles, including the arterials. The simulation model will be used to develop and test traffic control strategies under different scenarios. Minnesota Traffic Observatory director John Hourdos is leading that effort.

This research and the field deployment system are funded through a collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation Cyber Physical Systems program. SRF Consulting is the industrial partner to help design the sensor network and evaluate the system.

Winter Decision-Making Crosses State Lines

Winter weather events have a regional and often national impact. “Storms never stop at the state line,” said Tom Peters, research and training engineer, MnDOT Maintenance Operations. “That’s why it’s so important for us to know about winter maintenance efforts around the country, and particularly at neighboring states with similar climates.”

MnDOT leads the Clear Roads Transportation Pooled Fund Project (clearroads.org), a national winter maintenance research consortium. In 2015, Clear Roads launched a national survey to collect and report the annual winter maintenance operations of state DOTs. The effort included nearly 50 data points related to equipment, materials and costs.

The results, which are available at clearroads.org/winter-maintenance-survey as a Microsoft Excel-based spreadsheet, are available at no cost for users to examine, analyze and parse as needed. Beyond the raw data, the spreadsheet includes calculated statistics and an interactive map for plotting key metrics.

The results quantified much of what was known only anecdotally and provided useful, actionable data. “Data trends by geographic region and over time let us make more informed operations decisions,” Peters said. “We can also draw on this information to communicate with management, elected officials and the public about how MnDOT’s winter operations fit in a national context.”

As the lead state, MnDOT commits significant administrative time and attention across the agency to Clear Roads. “It’s rewarding and satisfying to see such a useful product as one of the payoffs for all this effort,” Peters said.

Additional data collection for the 2015-2016 winter season is already complete. Look for an update to the online database later this year.


Research in Progress

Clear Roads has nearly a dozen research projects in progress, including:

See all of Clear Roads’ current research projects at clearroads.org/research-in-progress.


What’s Next?

At its September meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, the Clear Roads Technical Advisory Committee funded five new projects:

  • Utilization of GPS/AVL Technology: Case Studies
  • Standards and Guidance for Using Sensor Technology to Assess Winter Road Conditions
  • Emergency Operations Methodology for Extreme Winter Storm Events
  • Weather Event Reconstruction and Analysis Tool
  • Training Video for the Implementation of Liquid-Only Plow Routes

What is Clear Roads? 

Clear Roads is a 33-member pooled fund program dedicated to winter road maintenance research. Led by MnDOT, Clear Roads projects evaluate winter maintenance materials, equipment and methods; develop specifications and recommendations; study and promote innovative techniques and technologies; and develop field guides and training curricula. Learn more at clearroads.org.

Newly funded studies tackle big transportation questions

Can Twin Cities roadsides be used to grow habitat for endangered bumble bees? Are unseen factors affecting safety at rural intersectionsHow should Minnesota transportation agencies be preparing for connected vehicle technology?

Minnesota’s next round of transportation research projects will attempt to solve these and other questions facing the state’s transportation community. The Transportation Research and Investment Group, which governs MnDOT’s research program, and the Minnesota Local Road Research Board, which represents cities and counties, recently met and selected 21 transportation research projects for funding in fiscal year 2018.

A couple of MnDOT’s most interesting projects will evaluate the reuse of wastewater at safety rest areas and truck stations and develop a system to optimize the location of 80 truck stations due for replacement in the next 20 years. MnDOT will also partner with the Local Road Research Board to evaluate the use of personal warning sensors for road construction workers.

In addition to the problem of stripping underneath sealcoats on some city streets, other top research projects for local governments involve pedestrian safety enforcement and investigating whether rural, low-volume roads should be treated differently than urban roads for stormwater runoff. Current regulations govern runoff the same, regardless of daily vehicle count or surrounding land use.

“The selected research studies, which typically take one to three years to complete, will address some of the most major policy, environmental and maintenance dilemmas facing transportation practitioners,” said Linda Taylor, director of MnDOT Research Services & Library.

Below is a list of the selected projects, with links to associated need statements. Final project scopes will become available once contracts are approved. For further information, go here.

Bridges & Structures

Materials & Construction

Environmental

Planning

Maintenance Operations

Traffic & Safety