UW News

July 8, 2010

TransNow TransLab a New Hub for UW Transportation Research

UW News

Buckle up. Transportation research at the UW is about to shift into a high gear. The TransNow TransLab that opened to the public this June provides a new space for UW researchers to discuss ideas and share data in the world of transportation research.

“The laboratory will be a place that’s interactive and multidisciplinary, where people from different areas can work together,” said Nancy Nihan, professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering. “This will develop solutions to the problems that are too big and too important for any one discipline to solve.”

Nihan directs Transportation Northwest, or TransNow, a federally-funded entity that coordinates transportation research and education in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. TransNow’s renovated lab space in the basement of More Hall will be used to train future traffic engineers and coordinate UW research on transportation planning, infrastructure, logistics and security.

“In one section we’re trying to replicate what would be a transportation agency traffic management center,” said Pete Briglia, associate director of TransNow, who helped design the space. “We thought it would be a good idea to try to replicate the center here, on a small scale, and provide some training opportunities to students before they go to work at the Department of Transportation.”

In the past, six UW undergraduates at a time were doing part-time internships at the Department of Transportation’s traffic management center in North Seattle, monitoring the traffic cameras and controlling the ramp meters.

“We can only put so many interns up there,” Nihan said. “In the new space, we can train whole classes.”

Another area focuses on traffic signals, to give undergraduate students experience in how municipalities manage their day-to-day traffic operations. A key piece of equipment here is a model traffic intersection that allows students to control the signal lights.

The lab also houses work stations, a conference room and enough space to teach a class.

In addition to training students on existing traffic technology, the UW has various groups developing new ways to manage traffic.

Nihan’s group studies lane-blocking incidents — accidents, spills or stalled vehicles — that block freeway lanes. Researchers use computer simulations to study whether digital signs reduce the duration of incident-caused congestion on local freeways.

“TransLab is essential for doing traffic research like this,” Nihan said.

Civil and Environmental Engineering Associate Professor Yinhai Wang’s group is developing technology to better track cyclists and pedestrians, and using existing Washington highway video cameras to collect data about traffic flow. Another project will install portable monitors that use Bluetooth signals from drivers’ cell phones, in-car navigation systems, and other electronic devices to easily calculate travel times between monitoring points.

Wang is currently the director of the Smart Transportation Applications and Research Laboratory (STAR Lab), which had outgrown its space down the hall. STAR Lab’s equipment and data are now housed in the new space.

“Compared to what we need, this space is still small, but it’s a big improvement,” Wang said.

“We do need more space,” agreed Nihan. “We’re looking to expand TransLab to another space, probably off campus.”

On the freight side, researchers Anne Goodchild and Ed McCormack, assistant professors in Civil & Environmental Engineering, study how goods travel through Washington state. Their research seeks to make transportation of goods faster and more environmentally friendly. They also study how freight deliveries can be more resistant to natural disasters such as earthquakes, avalanches or floods.

Associate Professor Cynthia Chen, a new faculty member, does computer simulations of traffic flow and transit forecasting. Because the new lab provides servers to store all the data and systems to transfer huge files, Chen can now more easily compare her simulations against colleagues’ data on existing traffic patterns.

Other researchers are looking at really far-out ideas — like using solar cells on the road’s surface to turn roads into a giant source of renewable energy.

“The transportation agencies and private firms will provide matching funds for most research projects, but we will do basic research as well — projects where you’re not sure you’re going to get an answer right away,” Nihan said.

The Washington State Transportation Center (TRAC), based in the University District Building, will continue to work with UW transportation researchers to secure research grants from state or municipal agencies.

The majority of users of the new space will be those who are dealing with real-time data and large datasets, Nihan said. Information from multiple sources arrives at the lab and gets stored in the servers, or displayed on the nine flat-panel TV screens that take up one wall. Vehicle counts from loops buried in the highway pavement are sent to TransLab every 20- seconds. Traffic camera feeds are supplied by the Washington State Department of Transportation. The lab also has dedicated connections to the cities of Bellevue and Lynnwood to receive real-time data from traffic sensors that calculate how fast cars are traveling, and how long they have to wait at an intersection.

Students and faculty work on data mining, visualizing and managing all that information. A few years ago, doctoral students Yao-Jan Wu and Xiaolei Ma of the STAR Lab built a tool called DRIVE Net that displays the arterial travel-time data the STAR Lab has collected on Google maps. Now they can pull up wait times along residential streets in Bellevue, clicking from one intersection to another and backward and forward in time.

Others are finding ways to deliver the information to drivers and bus riders. Civil & Environmental Engineering doctoral student Kari Watkins has worked with Computer Science & Engineering doctoral student Brian Ferris to develop the OneBusAway bus-tracking tool, which now includes a popular iPhone app. Electrical Engineering professor Dan Dailey, who provided the data for this app and developed its precursor, MyBus, for TransNow, is working with Nihan to develop additional transit-oriented computer applications.

Soon the TransLab will be getting yet another source of data from the Traffic Buster Network, a new regional system that will allow different transportation agencies to share their video data.

Core users of the lab hope the new space will not only encourage closer partnerships between their research groups, but will make it easier to collaborate with other departments such as urban planning, electrical engineering, computer science & engineering, industrial & systems engineering, environmental science and public health.

Nihan spearheaded the four-year effort to establish the space, and she will oversee the TransNow TransLab.