Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS)

"The Puget Sound region: home to the nation's most advanced technological applications for traffic information and management."  Mortimer Downey, Deputy Secretary of Transportation, U.S. Department of Transportation, June 1998

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) is a global research, development, and deployment effort aimed at applying information technologies -- computers and telecommunications -- to the efficiency and safety of the highway system. Work is particularly strong in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia.

Smart Trek (formerly Seattle TimeSaver) was a world-famous (in professional circles) ITS project in the late 1990s designed to reduce travel times on the Central Puget Sound highway system by 15% while increasing safety at the same time. Smart Trek built upon an already functioning Intelligent Transportation Infrastructure (the most familiar part of which is the system of TV cameras on freeways) and an extensive public-private cooperative effort. This $55 million dollar project was managed by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Is ITS a more cost-effective approach to reducing congestion than the Sound Transit's $7.8 billion dollar transit plan? In other words, would spending a few hundred million dollars more for ITS (including public transit ITS!) do more for mobility and traffic congestion than spending billions of dollars for Sound Transit trains and tunnels? Read on and think about it!

The rush hour traffic lights on the entrance ramps to I-5 and I-90 that slow down the entry of vehicles through ramp metering are one example of an ITS application that has proven very beneficial. The ramp meters along Interstate 5 have increased capacity at rush hour by 10 to 100 percent, while increasing highway speeds at the same time. Other cities have reported handling 8 to 22 percent more traffic while increasing or maintaining travel speeds. These and other benefits of ITS are reported in a U.S. Government report, Intelligent Transportation Systems: Real World Benefits (FHWA-JPO-98-018). Click here for an excerpt from this report.

One function of ITS is to provide travelers with accurate, up-to-date information on traffic and parking conditions and on bus availability in a way that makes traveling easier and faster. An example of traveler information in action is provided by the numerous variable message signs along Seattle area expressways, which can also be viewed on WSDOT's web site.

The system of State Government TV cameras on the freeway is another example. The web site that displays all of these pictures is here. Workers in any office that has Internet access can check the pictures on these cameras to help make a decision on when to go home, and which route to take if a choice is possible.

An example of one of the pictures available (I-5 in downtown Seattle right now) is displayed here courtesy of Washington State Department of Transportation:

cctv105.jpg (18112 bytes)

Of even greater interest here in the PITF is the development of an Internet site that displays where the Metro buses are right now. If a bus comes infrequently, which is often the case in the suburbs, a bus rider may like to know whether there is a bus coming that can be caught right now! Busview Plus is a system under development at the University of Washington to do just that when completed and deployed to cover everywhere the buses go. Click here to see how  works now!

Through ITS and dedicated bus lanes, a modern bus system can come close to the capabilities of a light rail system at much lower expense.  Read more about what is now called Bus Rapid Transit.

To find out more about Intelligent Transportation Systems:


U.S. DOT's vision of ITS as of January 2008 is available in a Powerpoint here or in pdf format.


The U.S. trade association for this ITS effort is called ITS America. There is a chapter of this association in Washington State called ITS Washington.


Information on Intelligent Transportation Systems direct from the U.S. Government Department of Transportation is here.


A vision of what is possible for modern transit using ITS prepared in 1995 by PITF Co-editor John Niles.


Puget Sound Regional Council now has an ongoing project to plan for more ITS applications.

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Last modified: February 07, 2011