This article was originally published in Catalyst, August 2022.
Ever wanted to build a model bridge with popsicle sticks, program a mobile mini-robot, or make an “asphalt” cookie? A cohort of 27 middle school and high school students did just that and more through a wide range of hands-on STEM-based activities related to the transportation field at the U of M this summer.
This article was originally published in Catalyst, August 2022.
Register to join us at the annual CTS Transportation Research Conference, scheduled for November 3, 2022, at the Graduate Minneapolis Hotel on the east bank of the U of M’s Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis.
Join us at the 28th Annual CTS Research Conference to hear about new learning, emerging ideas, and the latest innovations in transportation. This year’s event is scheduled for November 2 at The Commons Hotel in Minneapolis.
Attendees will learn about research findings, implementation efforts, and engagement activities related to a variety of transportation topics. This year’s keynote presentations feature:
Joung Lee, policy director at AASHTO, on how we pay for transportation infrastructure
Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer at LA Metro, on policy innovation at his agency
Southwest Minnesota has the highest average wind speeds in the state—bad news for MnDOT snowplow operators who often drive in low visibility to clear roads.
“We have more days when the wind blows than when it doesn’t,” said Chase Fester, MnDOT District 7 transportation operations supervisor. “We struggle with the wind.”
That’s why District 7 is piloting a snowplow driver-assist system (DAS) developed by University of Minnesota researchers to combat the blowing snow and fog that often cause zero visibility. The DAS helps snowplow operators see the road alignment and features, such as turn lanes, guardrails, and road markings. Even in less extreme winter weather, snowplow operators gain assurance of their lane location using the system.
The DAS was developed and refined over the past 20 years under multiple research projects funded by MnDOT and the USDOT’s University Transportation Center program. Professor Max Donath, director of the University of Minnesota’s Roadway Safety Institute, led the work. In addition to plows, the DAS technology has also been applied in other specialty vehicles such as patrol cars and ambulances. Numerous vehicles using the system have been deployed in both Minnesota and Alaska.
The DAS uses GPS technology and a front-mounted radar to provide an image of the road and any obstacles in front of the operator. The image is displayed on a monitor inside the cab of the plow. The system also vibrates the operator’s seat as a warning if the plow veers too close to the roadway’s centerline or fog line.
“If the driver gets within one foot of the fog line on the right side, the right side of the seat vibrates. If the driver gets too close to the centerline on the left side, the left side vibrates,” said Fester.
The vibrations continue until the driver moves back into the center of the lane. The driver can also turn off the warning feature to clear snow from the shoulder.
The DAS is currently installed in one truck in District 7. The $75,000 cost makes it difficult to install in every truck in the district or the state, although having at least one system in every district may be possible, Fester said.
Fester said the system proved its worth one day in February when blizzard conditions caused zero visibility and forced many road closures in southwest Minnesota. He was called out at 2 a.m. Feb. 8 to assist a stranded state trooper and several motorists on a 12-mile stretch of Hwy 60 between Windom and Heron Lake. Fester drove a pickup behind the DAS-equipped snowplow, driven by Darryl Oeltjenbruns, to reach them.
As the DAS identified stranded vehicles on the way to Heron Lake, Fester and Oeltjenbruns checked to make sure they weren’t occupied with people. Once they made it to Heron Lake, they stopped at the community center, where the state trooper and the stranded motorists he brought in were located.
On the way back to Windom, Fester and the state patrolman continued to check on stranded vehicles as the DAS-equipped snowplow led the way. If the vehicles weren’t in the ditch, motorists drove behind the two MnDOT vehicles. If their vehicles were in the ditch, motorists rode in a Suburban that was also being escorted to Windom. After returning to Windom, the motorists were dropped off at motels or truck stops.
“When we first went out, there were about six stranded vehicles. Coming back from Heron Lake, there were about 15,” Fester said. “At one time, we had 12 vehicles in line as we drove back to Windom, driving about 10 to 15 miles per hour.”
Later that morning the DAS system was used again to locate other motorists.
“We continued to use it until about 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. that day,” Fester said. “The system worked great and kept everyone safe. It was an interesting morning.”
(Reprinted and adapted with permission from an article by Sue Roe in MnDOT’s Feb. 17, 2016 Newsline.)
Results of a newly released MnDOT research report shed new light on the role transportation plays in our state’s economic competitiveness, and highlight the unique challenges faced by some of the state’s major industry clusters.
The report, authored by Professor Lee Munnich of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, underscores the importance of a reliable transportation system in facilitating economic growth. Munnich examined the impact of transportation on Minnesota’s competitive industry clusters — geographically concentrated, interconnected groups of companies and institutions that share knowledge networks, supply chains and specialized labor pools.
MnDOT Research Project Engineer Bruce Holdhusen said MnDOT’s goal with the study was to discover how its investment decisions could help support job creation and economic prosperity.
“The idea is to look at the companies and industries that are already bringing money into the state, figure out what their transportation challenges are, and then use that information to see what kind of investments we could make to support their continued growth,” Holdhusen said.
MnDOT is incorporating the results of the study into its statewide freight planning. The industry clusters-approach also is being used by MnDOT in a statewide effort to talk with manufacturers, other shippers, and carriers about their transportation priorities and challenges. MnDOT will focus on its Metro District starting this summer. Two similar projects have been undertaken in Greater Minnesota, with a third study starting later this year. (Results from one study, in southwest Minnesota/District 8, are available online.)
The full report is available online, and examines a wide range of industries, including forest products, medical devices, robotics and processed foods. We’ve pulled out a few interesting tidbits below.
Recreational Vehicles (Northwest Minnesota)
As noted in the report, Minnesota’s extreme winter weather poses unique challenges to its economic competitiveness. Ironically, nowhere is this more evident than in the state’s snowmobile-producing northwest corner.
Polaris and Arctic Cat (together with smaller, more specialized firms like Mattracks) employ thousands of Minnesotans, producing a wide variety of recreational vehicles and accessories that are sold and distributed all over the world. While the companies’ snowmobiles might fare well in a blizzard, the trucks that deliver them don’t. A bad snowstorm can cause delays in both supply and product shipments; it can also prevent employees from getting to work, or even shut down a plant altogether. On a larger scale, these issues make it difficult for the companies to expand at their ideal rates.
The report notes that MnDOT’s 511 system is an important source for many companies to identify and respond to potential shipping delays. It recommends continuous improvements to the system.
The Mayo Clinic (Rochester Area)
The Mayo Clinic has become synonymous with the Rochester metropolitan area, and for good reason: it employs 37,000 residents and brings in 500,000 unique patients each year from all 50 U.S. states and 150 countries. As you might imagine, generating that much activity in a community of only 110,000 people creates some unique and significant transportation challenges.
Unlike most competitor institutions (Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, for example), the Mayo clinic is located in a relatively small metropolitan area. The local airport has an older navigation system and offers less direct commercial air service. As a result, it depends on high-quality transit and freight service to help accommodate the constant flow of visitors and supplies. The shipping of highly perishable lab samples is also a challenge, as air carriers have limited capacity for refrigeration. Finally, adverse weather conditions can affect emergency services dispatchers’ ability to send fast modes of transportation such as helicopters.
Hospitality and Tourism (Brainerd Lakes Area)
The oil boom in North Dakota has generated a lot of wealth in a short amount of time, and resorts like the Grand View Lodge in Nisswa would love to capture some of it by enticing new vacationers from the west. The trouble is, the area is inconvenient to reach from that direction.
A four-lane highway makes it easy for visitors from St. Cloud or the Twin Cities to visit resorts in the Brainerd area, but travelers coming from the Dakotas face a more circuitous route. Air travel options help to an extent, as visitors from even farther distances can fly into Fargo and then drive in from there. St. Cloud also has daily air service from Chicago, which helps maintain a constant flow of visitors.
The data collected at the scene of a crash by law enforcement officers are important for more than just drivers and their insurance companies. The information is also used on a much larger scale by state agencies and researchers to analyze and evaluate crashes, trends, and potential countermeasures.
“Big decisions get made based on that data—million-dollar decisions,” says Nichole Morris, a research associate at the U of M’s HumanFIRST Laboratory. “So you have to be sure that what goes in to that report is high quality and reflects what actually happened at the scene of the crash.”
As part of an effort to improve this data quality in Minnesota, Morris is leading a team of HumanFIRST researchers in a project to redesign the electronic crash report interface used by law enforcement officers. The team’s goal is to create a new interface that improves the accuracy, speed, reliability, and meaningfulness of crash report data.
The project is occurring in conjunction with a redesign of Minnesota’s crash records database and is being sponsored by the Traffic Records Coordinating Committee (TRCC) at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) and by MnDOT.
“In industry, they do this work all the time, looking at usability and design. But when you think about what a state does in terms of usability, nothing like this to our knowledge has ever been done. This makes it a very exciting and revolutionary project for Minnesota,” Morris says.
In the first phase of the project, the researchers completed a human factors analysis on the existing crash report interface to identify potential problem areas. This included a step-by-step task analysis and in-depth interviews with law enforcement officers.
During this process, the researchers identified several areas they hoped to improve. For instance, they wanted the new interface to be smarter, making better use of autofill features to reduce the amount of manual data entry.
Following the analysis, the team built two versions of a mock crash report interface for usability testing: a wizard and a form. In both versions, the researchers added decision aids to ease usability. They also significantly improved the system’s autofill capabilities, reducing the ratio of officer to system data entry from 6:1 to nearly 1:1.
The researchers then conducted four rounds of usability testing with law enforcement officers for both the wizard and the form. Results were split: half the officers preferred the wizard and half preferred the form. Because of these findings, the TRCC is planning to build full versions of both, Morris says, which will allow officers to use the version they prefer.
Going forward, the researchers plan to make a few more adjustments to the research prototype before handing it off to the state vendor, Appriss, which will build the new system. The team will then work collaboratively with Appriss to complete additional beta and usability testing before the new interface launches in January 2016.
“The results of the HumanFIRST prototypes are being combined with the vendor’s prior experience for a best-of-breed approach,” says Kathleen Haney, traffic records coordinator at DPS. “This is a fantastic project, and the results will be relevant for years to come.”
A leading cause of bridge failure is bridge scour, which occurs when rapidly moving water erodes riverbed soil around abutments or piers.
Monitoring bridge scour with traditional inspection methods can be dangerous and difficult, so MnDOT has been working with researchers from the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory to develop a continuous monitoring system to test certain bridges more safely and efficiently.
MnDOT currently monitors 45 scour-critical bridges — and local Minnesota agencies monitor 360 more — using visual inspections or water data websites during flooding events. Once a predetermined threshold is exceeded, portable scour monitoring equipment is deployed to measure scour depth. If scour has undermined the foundations of a bridge, inspectors close it for repair.
But portable scour monitoring systems can be difficult and dangerous to deploy from the bridge deck or boat in fast-moving water. It can also be difficult to get inspectors to sites quickly enough in areas subject to flash flooding.
A better alternative for such situations are fixed scour monitoring devices that continuously monitor scour and send data wirelessly to bridge personnel, alerting them when scour reaches a dangerous level.
MnDOT has not historically made use of fixed scour monitoring equipment, but as advances in technology have made these devices more affordable and reliable, the agency became interested in exploring the use of fixed monitoring equipment at locations where the use of portable equipment is problematic. ( A major concern for fixed scour monitoring is damage from debris and ice.)
Researchers have installed fixed remote monitoring stations on four such bridges.
Stations on the first two bridges (Highway 14 over the Minnesota River in Mankato and Highway 43 at the Mississippi River in Winona, pictured at top) ran successfully for three years, with outages due to primarily to power and communication issues.
Researchers learned valuable lessons from these bridges and have now installed monitoring equipment on two more: The Old Hastings Bridge (Highway 61 over the Mississippi River), on which float-outs were installed; and the Dresbach Bridge (Interstate-90 over the Mississippi River), which had a tilt meter and underwater sonar device installed.
“The less familiar personnel are with technical equipment, the less they tend to use it,” said Andrea Hendrickson, State Hydraulics Engineer, MnDOT Office of Bridges and Structures. “This research project gave us the familiarity and technical information we need to be comfortable using fixed scour monitoring equipment on bridges that warrant it.”
New research from the Accessibility Observatory at the University of Minnesota ranks 46 of the 50 largest (by population) metropolitan areas in the United States for accessibility to jobs by transit.
The new rankings, part of the Access Across America study begun last year, focus on accessibility, a measure that examines both land use and transportation systems. Accessibility measures how many destinations, such as jobs, can be reached in a given time.
“This project provides the most detailed evaluation to date of access to jobs by transit,” says Andrew Owen, director of the Observatory. “We directly compare the transit accessibility performance of America’s largest metropolitan areas.”
The findings have a range of uses and implications. State departments of transportation, metropolitan planning organizations, and transit agencies can apply the evaluations to performance goals related to congestion, reliability, and sustainability. In addition, detailed accessibility evaluation can help in selecting between project alternatives and prioritizing investments.
“It can help reveal how the costs and benefits of transportation investments are distributed,” Owen says.
Top 10 metro areas: job accessibility by transit (January 2014)
The report—Access Across America: Transit 2014—presents detailed accessibility values for each of the 46 metropolitan areas, as well as detailed block-level color maps that illustrate the spatial patterns of accessibility within each area. In addition, time-lapse map videos for each area are forthcoming and new analysis of the data from the accessibility to jobs by transit rankings will be published periodically. Upcoming reports in the Access Across America series will explore more detailed aspects of transit accessibility to jobs, including accessibility to jobs of different wage levels and a comparison with accessibility by car.
In the study, rankings were determined by a weighted average of accessibility, giving a higher weight to closer jobs. Jobs reachable within 10 minutes were weighted most heavily; jobs were given decreasing weight as travel time increases up to 60 minutes. Travel times were calculated using full transit schedules for the 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. period. The calculations include all components of a transit journey, including “last mile” access and egress walking segments and transfers.
“Accessibility is the single most important measure in explaining the effectiveness of the urban transportation system,” says David Levinson, University of Minnesota civil engineering professor and principal investigator on the project.
According to Owen, accessibility can be measured for various transportation modes, to different types of destinations, and at different times of day. “There are a variety of ways to define accessibility,” Owen explains, “but the number of destinations reachable within a given travel time is the most directly comparable across cities.”
The research is sponsored by the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota. Accessibility Observatory reports, including the analysis of job accessibility by auto published last year and interactive maps, are available on the Access Across America: Transit 2014 web page.
MnDOT, in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration, is test-deploying a high-tech system to help combat drowsy driving and keep truck drivers in compliance with federal hours-of-service regulations.
Developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota, the prototype system lets drivers know when parking spaces are available at rest stops ahead. It has been deployed at several locations along the heavily traveled I-94 corridor between Minneapolis and St. Cloud.
ST. PAUL, Minn. – New technology along the I-94 corridor west and northwest of the Twin Cities is helping truckers find safe places to park. Three Minnesota Department of Transportation rest areas are now equipped with automated truck stop management systems that tell truck drivers when parking spaces are available.
The technology will improve safety, lead to better trip and operations management by drivers and carriers and help MnDOT and private truck stop owners manage their facilities more effectively, according to John Tompkins, MnDOT project manager.
“So far, the results have been positive. We’ve had 95 percent accuracy in determining the availability of spaces,” he said.
Federal hours of service rules require truck drivers to stop and rest after 11 hours of driving. Tompkins said if drivers continue to drive beyond 11 hours, they could become fatigued and be forced to park in unsafe locations such as freeway ramps. They could also face legal penalties.
The problem of truck driver fatigue recently took the national spotlight when an allegedly drowsy driver slammed his semitrailer into a limousine carrying actor-comedian Tracy Morgan and six others. One passenger died in the crash.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”