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Pioneering Work On Traffic Flows

4 March 2013

Costain is pursuing new methods of road usage analysis to help get the maximum capacity out of the UK’s highways network.

The Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) and Sheffield University Computer Science Department are undertaking groundbreaking research with Costain to give greater accuracy in predicting breakdowns of traffic flows. This is intended to give insights into how the greatest traffic volumes can be achieved on the road network.

“We’ve formed an industry group including ourselves, TRL, Sheffield University and others to exploit emerging microsimulation analysis technologies,” explained Technical Director, Bill Hewlett.

“Current Government priorities are firstly to optimise the performance of existing roads; secondly to remove pinch points on the road network; and thirdly to build major new highway schemes. Virtually the only major new transport scheme being talked about at the moment is the HS2 high-speed rail link; nobody is talking about roads at this level of investment.”

Understanding how to make the best possible use of existing roads is therefore increasingly important.

“If we can make more economical or effective use of existing roads, we can bring economic benefits to the UK. This is in line with our strategy of being a solutions provider.”

One way of doing this is by implementing Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) techniques. ITS is defined as the integration of information and communications technology with transport infrastructure. It can take many forms, at its simplest ranging from warning drivers of hazards ahead, to highly sophisticated systems which plan routes in response to traffic density and take over control of the vehicle. Costain is already active in this field with its patented DRUM (Dynamic Roadspace Utilisation Manager) tool which improves traffic flows through motorway schemes and accelerates construction programmes.

Two TRL reports prepared for Costain on traffic flows review the state-of-the-art in ITS and in microsimulation techniques with the aim of understanding how they can be enhanced.

Microsimulation tools model individual vehicles to determine factors such as their speed, acceleration and lane changing, which on aggregate indicate the speed and flow on the highway. An accurate microsimulation model is vital for predicting how a new road scheme or technology will perform, and could be used for predicting and dispersing congestion in real time.

The reports recommend that significant improvements can be made to most microsimulation modelling through enhanced calibration using CCTV and other highways data, and they point to the technologies that Sheffield have developed which handle parallel processing at orders of magnitude faster than real time.

“Out on the highway you can’t just try things and hope they work,” observes Bill.  “You have to know that your proposals are safe and that your investment will pay back.” Dense traffic moving at high speed has lots of dangers, so prediction is vital. “This is where our new methods come in. New solutions in ITS are radical innovations and have no track record; often their impact defies conventional analysis. My positioning for Costain is so that we can take advantage of new techniques of analysis as they emerge so we’re the first in the field,” said Bill. “That is certainly of interest to clients.”