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Sensor data crunched by math experts to cure queues

Mathematicians are analyzing data from road sensors so that traffic management systems can be fine-tuned to improve flow and journey time. They hope to understand what triggers stop-go queuing on busy open highways so they can provide traffic managers with better tools for keeping the roads moving.

The team has been awarded US$1.3 million (£614,000) to crunch the numbers obtained from loop sensors embedded every 500m underneath the UK’s busiest motorways. They will use sophisticated mathematical techniques to identify subtle driver behaviors that lead to interruptions in steady-state flows. The UK government-backed project is being led by academics at Bristol University, working with the national Highways Agency, the Transport Research Laboratory and the Knowledge Transfer Network for Industrial mathematics.

“The big problem is stop-and-go patterns,” says Dr Eddie Wilson (left), reader in engineering mathematics at Bristol. “The queues are like waves that move upstrream against the traffic flow. What has caused them may be many kilometers downstream.” Variable speed limits or signs might prevent such stop-and-go waves but only if they can be forecast. “To conduct forecasting, we need a better understanding of how the waves develop and propagate and to do this we are looking at individual cars and the whole traffic flow."

The Confederation of British Industry has estimated that delays due to road traffic congestion cost UK businesses up to US$41 billion (£20 billion) annually and UK road traffic is forecast to grow by 30% in the period 2000-2015.

Right: Dr Eddie Wilson will mine the data from road sensors to find the cause of stop-and-go queues

November 26, 2007

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