Yesterday, I had the privilege of touring the Houston TranStar center with many of my fellow agents in a tour organized by Boulevard Realty. For those of you who aren’t familiar, TranStar is a partnership of four government agencies (TxDOT, Harris County, METRO and the City of Houston) that are responsible for providing Transportation Management and Emergency Management services to the Greater Houston Region. This unique combination allows TranStar to efficiently and effectively pull resources so as to provide Houston with excellent and innovative transportation and emergency management services. TranStar was the first center of its kind, and today is still one of only five such facilities in the country. The four other similar sites are in New York City, Los Angeles, Austin and Louisiana.
Having graduated from Texas A&M with an Electrical Engineering degree, the engineering marvels displayed by TranStar’s Transportation Management are especially impressive to me. To see such large scale engineering feats all headquartered in one place is incredible. As the dispatch for METRO, the sheer volume that TranStar is monitoring is massive. Each day they are keeping track of 45,000 light rail passengers and over 1,100 buses during rush hour. Just to give you an idea of how large of an area they are monitoring, Harris County is larger than 23 U.S. states and is the 3rd most populous county in the nation.
TranStar is monitoring even more than just Harris County though. They know the speed on the Interstate all the way to Dallas to the north, Luling to the west, and the Louisiana border to the east. This means that, each and every day, they are tracking 83 million miles. That’s the equivalent of about 3,400 trips around the earth! Monitoring all this land means that TranStar is able to quickly deal with issues on the road not only in the Houston area, but all vehicles in TxDOT’s six county Houston District. This means doing things such as sending vehicles to remove debris or hazardous materials, giving emergency vehicles the most direct routes to an accident scene, and sending trucks to stalled vehicles. TranStar has a 98 percent success rate of getting a vehicle to these scenes in just six minutes. This has helped contribute to cutting traffic accidents by about 20 percent.
Letting the public know about drive times and traffic alerts is another valuable service of TranStar’s Transportation Management. On the road, this is done through Dynamic Message Signs (DMS), which is the fancy name for those roadside signs you see on highways that estimate drive times and notify you of issues ahead. TranStar updates these about every seven minutes. TranStar’s Traffic Map, which can be accessed on their website, shows things such as road closures, traffic incidents, and travel speeds. Average highway travel speeds of 50 MPH or greater are indicated with the color green, 40-49 MPH with blue, 30-39 MPH with yellow, 20-29 MPH with orange, and less than 20 MPH with red. TranStar shares their data with companies like Google in exchange for public service announcements. So that is where your Google Map drive times come from!
You’re probably wondering how TranStar is able to figure out things like travel speeds and estimated drive times. They uses a few different tools to get this data. In the past, EZ TAG sensor tracking was the primary source for determining this information. Various EZ TAG sensors are set up throughout the Houston area so time passed between sensors can be measured. This gives a representative sample that can then be used to extrapolate average speeds and travel times, and expected drive times. This actually is a rather inefficient method because it is very expensive and gives too small of a sample size due to the fact that many vehicles don’t have EZ TAGs. In an effort to significantly cut costs and access a larger group, TranStar recently began making use of Anonymous Wireless Address Matching (AWAM). Roadside AWAM sensors use enabled Bluetooth in things like cell phones, in-vehicle navigation, and mobile GPS systems to anonymously track the Bluetooth device’s electronic address which, like with the EZ TAG method, then allows average speeds, average travel times, and expected drive times to be calculated. The inherent value of the Bluetooth process is clear as each sensor only costs $7,500 versus $75,000 per sensor for the EZ TAG process.
The expansive engineering feats of the Transportation Management division of TranStar are what most impressed me, but it is important to note the benefit of having the Harris County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and Transportation Management all in one place. The OEM is there to help coordinate a quick response when emergencies like hurricanes, floods or terrorist attacks arise. TranStar’s innovative combination allows OEM and Transportation Management to combine resources and work together in responding to emergency situations. This makes Houston especially well-equipped to handle emergency situations that may require evacuation.
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