Tag Archives: John Hourdos

MnPASS: Two systems, both work

I-35W’s MnPASS lane, where vehicles can frequently enter and exit the high-occupancy toll lane, is just as safe as the MnPASS lane on I-394, where motorists only have a few shots to enter the system, a new study finds.

Researchers at the Minnesota Traffic Observatory undertook the MnDOT-funded study because of objections to open systems like the one on 35W.

“The federal government has very strong arguments against the open system. They’re saying it’s going to be dangerous – cause more disruption and more congestion,” said John Hourdos, director of the Minnesota Traffic Observatory. “We found that both roadways are working very well today because they were designed appropriately for their location.”

The definition of an open system is one that has more opportunity for access than restriction. On 35W, a dotted white lane means vehicles can enter the toll lane at will, and a solid line bars access.

Vehicles must have two occupants on-board or an electronic pay card to use the express lanes during rush hour.

MnPASS on Highway 35W.

The reason I-35W allows vehicles to enter MnPASS more frequently than I-394 is because there are more ramps where new vehicles are entering the freeway and might want to get on MnPASS.

Researchers studied whether accidents are more likely to occur by studying the number of accident-inducing vehicle movements along the 35W corridor. They found that areas where accidents are mostly likely to occur are also where the lane would have to allow access anyway under a closed system like 394.

The study also looked at mobility, determining that MnPASS users have just as good free-flowing traffic under the open system.

Helpful tools

Researchers also created design tools that engineers can use to determine where access points should be on MnPASS lanes.

Until now, engineers have relied on rule of thumb. For example, the general guidance for allowing access on a closed system was 500 feet for every lane between the entrance ramp and the HOT.

The tools can be used to automatically determine how fluctuations in the MnPASS fee will affect congestion within the lane.

The fee to use MnPASS depends on the time of day.

As the express lane become more congested, the fee to use it increases. This slows the number of cars entering the lane, increasing the speed of the vehicles already in the lane.

“We ran the tool on three locations on 35W and found that, for example, on Cliff Road, you can increase the traffic by 75 percent and still be okay,” Hourdos said. “You have more leeway there than north of the crossroads of Highway 62 and 35W, for instance.”

 Related Resources

Warning system could protect drivers from traffic ‘shock waves’

Two summers ago, the Minnesota Department of Transportation installed electronic message boards on parts of Interstates 35W and 94 to help warn drivers of crashes and to recommend speed levels during periods of high congestion.

Now, MnDOT would like to use the devices — officially known as Intelligent Lane Control Signs (ILCS) — to advise drivers of sudden stopping or slowing of traffic.  Many crashes occur when drivers cannot react quickly enough to these changes.

The Minnesota Traffic Observatory (shown in the feature photo above) is developing a warning system to detect such problematic traffic patterns and issue automatic advisories to drivers.

Shock waves on I-94

A section of I-94 in downtown Minneapolis, where southbound I-35W and westbound I-94 converge, may have the highest crash rate in the state.

As shown in the video above, vehicles constantly slow down and speed up here during rush hour, which causes a ripple effect called “shock waves.”

“There’s a crash every two days,” said University of Minnesota researcher John Hourdos, whose students watched over a year’s worth of video footage to document every accident and near accident. “They’re not severe crashes — no one has died for as long as I can remember, and most happen at slow speeds — but they cause a lot of delays for the traveling public.”

When statistics were still being kept, this section of I-94 had the highest number of accidents in the state, with approximately 150 crashes and 400 near crashes observed in 2003.

Researchers developed a program 10 years ago to detect “shock wave” patterns in the traffic, but they couldn’t develop a practical solution until the state invested in electronic message boards.

The University of Minnesota deployed cameras and sensors on three downtown rooftops in 2002 to observe traffic patterns.  They provide seamless coverage of the entire area, allowing researchers to watch vehicles from the moment they enter and exit the area. MnDOT has added additional cameras and detectors to watch over this roadway section. For the past year, the combined efforts of MnDOT and the university have provided data from 26 cameras and 12 traffic sensors for the two-mile section that includes the high-crash frequency location.

Thanks to the message boards, Hourdos and his team can now create an automated system to warn drivers when conditions for “shock waves” are greatest, using an algorithm he developed in the previous study.

Traffic monitoring equipment on a rooftop
From downtown Minneapolis rooftops, traffic monitoring equipment detect shockwaves on Interstate 94.

Crosstown interchange 

A newer problem that researchers hope to tackle is the lineup of cars on I-35W southbound during rush hour at the newly reconstructed Crosstown interchange.

Although two lanes of traffic are provided for eastbound Highway 62 at the I-35W/62 split, these vehicles must later converge into one lane, due to the Portland Avenue exit. This causes a back-up on the 62 ramp that stretches back to 35W.

Hourdos said developing an algorithm to detect these queues is a different problem than what goes on with I-94, since there is a constant stoppage of cars and no rolling shockwaves.

“Combining the two methodologies will form a more robust solution and a single implementable driver warning system,” Hourdos said.

Researchers might target other problems areas should the state  install additional ILCS message boards elsewhere in the Twin Cities.

Reducing confusion at two-lane roundabouts

Minnesotans have grown accustomed to roundabouts as they’ve proliferated throughout the state, but many motorists are still confused by the less common two-lane roundabout.

While roundabouts have been shown to reduce vehicle delay and severe crashes, the few Minnesota cities with this type of multi-lane roundabout have had a prevalence of driver mistakes.

In Woodbury, two such roundabouts were converted into smaller, one-circulating-lane designs due to driver confusion.

The City of Richfield had no such option at the high-volume Portland Avenue and 66th Street, a formerly signalized intersection that carries about 30,000 vehicles per day. (See video)

Crash-prone and congested prior to its reconstruction in 2008, a two-lane roundabout seemed to be the practical solution for this intersection. But although the roundabout reduced overall crashes, the intersection still had more fender benders than designers were comfortable with, according to City Engineer Kristin Asher.

“The crashes were primarily related to improper left-turns from the outside lane and failure to yield at the entry,” she said.

Not only were drivers unsure which lanes they should use to enter or exit the roundabout, they didn’t know how to respond to other cars inside the roundabout. (See news story)

“People don’t understand they have to yield to both lanes inside the roundabout,” explained University of Minnesota researcher John Hourdos.

In a recently completed study funded by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board, researchers from the Minnesota Traffic Observatory examined whether sign and pavement marking changes would improve performance.

The city of Richfield extended the solid lines leading up to the intersection from 50 to 250 feet to encourage drivers to choose the correct lane before entering the roundabout. It also replaced fish-hook-style roundabout signs with traditional lane designation signs and did away with complex striping patterns.

These before and after photos show the original fish-hook style pavement markings, left, which were replaced with a more traditional design. (Photos courtesy of the city of Richfield)
Before and after photos show the original fish-hook style pavement markings, left, that were replaced with a more traditional design.
(Courtesy City of Richfield)

Hourdos examined two years of traffic data to see how motorists responded to the improvements that were made in 2011.

He found 50 percent more drivers entered the correct lane from the get-go, which led to a reduction in improper turns within the roundabout. Lane violations were also reduced by 20 percent.

“One of the main problems was drivers didn’t know they have to choose one of the two lanes,” Hourdos explained. “Then once they were inside the roundabout, they were forced to either deviate from their course or commit a violation.”

The city also increased sign visibility to address yielding problems; however, these changes didn’t seem to make a difference.

With state and federal guidelines lacking much guidance for how to sign two-lane roundabouts, the LRRB is funding a new study for three other multi-lane roundabouts: in St. Cloud, at Highway 169/494 and one planned for the future realignment of County Roads 101 and 61 between Chanhassen and Shakopee.

Report: Effect of Signing and Lane Markings on the Safety of a Two-Lane Roundabout (PDF, 4 MB, 72 pages)

Update (1/30/2014): Watch the LRRB’s new video on how to navigate a multi-lane roundabout.

‘Intelligent’ traffic drum could help prevent work-zone tragedies

2012-26 Image
A prototype of the Intelligent Drum Line system.

Work-zone safety is a serious, ongoing challenge for transportation agencies. According to MnDOT, the current three-year average for Minnesota work zones is 1,819 crashes and seven fatalities per year. And that’s not counting near-misses: just talk to anyone who has worked as a flagger, and they will likely have a story about diving into a ditch to avoid being hit by a distracted driver. Consequently, MnDOT is constantly exploring ways to make work zones safer — which brings me to the photo above.

What you’re looking at is no ordinary traffic cone. It’s a prototype of a new warning device called the Intelligent Drum Line system — basically a modified orange traffic drum packed with electronics that can detect speeding drivers and blast them with audiovisual cues to let them know they’re entering the work zone too fast.

Our new technical summary explains the details of the new system, which was developed at the University of Minnesota, with funding and in-kind assistance from MnDOT:

The prototype design uses two modified traffic drums placed 1 to 3 feet from the shoulder of the road and 300 to 400 feet apart. Sensors in the first drum detect vehicles, measure their speed and distance, and communicate this information to the second drum…

When the IDL system detects an oncoming vehicle traveling faster than a threshold speed, the system activates visual warning systems in both drums and initiates a countdown. When the speeding vehicle is approximately 1 second away from the first drum, the system activates an air horn to warn the driver.

As the vehicle passes the first drum, the audible alarm terminates and the system transmits a command to the second drum to start another countdown. When the vehicle is approximately 1 second away from the second drum, the system activates another audible alarm.

Testing of the IDL system at MnROAD has been successful; however, researchers still need to study how drivers react to the system in real-world conditions. Before they can do that, the design will have to be refined so that it can pass Federal Highway Administration crashworthiness tests. On a related note, MnDOT is currently funding a separate University of Minnesota study into which technologies are most effective at capturing drivers’ attention in work zones. The study will include visual and auditory cues similar to the ones used in the IDL prototype.

Learn more: