ATLANTA — SUDDENLY the brake lights start to flicker and the snake of cars in front of you slows to a crawl, then a stop. You're stuck on Interstate 85, miles from your downtown exit.
But before you can ogle the Olympic Village rising on the right, an electronic sign over the road advises you to exit on North Avenue where the lights are automatically synchronized to accommodate the detouring cars.
Your salvation is a $140 million fiber-optic system and microchip sensors hooked to a computerized command center.
Making its debut yesterday, Atlanta's "smart" road is one of the most technologically sophisticated transportation systems in the country. It is designed to speed traffic flow, cut pollution, get commuters to work on time, and give them a few extra minutes with the family each day.
While cities from San Antonio to Seattle have combatted traffic congestion using various types of transportation management systems - some cities for more than a decade - Atlanta boasts the most comprehensive effort to date. It is part of the United States Department of Transportation's program to build an intelligent urban transportation infrastructure nationwide by 2005.
"Atlanta, because of the Olympics, is taking advantage of the situation and visibility they'll have," says George Schoene at the Federal Highway Administration (FHA). "But all across the country you're going to see this slowly take place."
The effort is spurred by statistics that gridlock-weary motorists would easily confirm. In the past 10 years, the number of vehicles traveling on America's interstates has grown by more than 30 percent, and the FHA expects congestion to get much worse. Clogged roads cost companies and commuters time and money.
But building more roads is expensive and uses up large tracts of undeveloped land. Transportation experts view technology as the answer to improving and managing traffic flow. They estimate intelligent systems could save people 15 percent off their travel time.
Still, some see electronic wizardry as only part of the solution.
"These smart systems can help us manage these problems, but technology alone won't solve the problem," says Michael Replogle, a transportation expert with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington. "We need to get smart about our land-use policies, how we invest in and manage existing street space, and give more priority to pedestrians, bicycles, public transportation, and other choices."
Atlanta's Advanced Transportation Management System - funded with federal and state dollars - integrates the management of traffic lights, freeways, transit systems, and visitor information.
A command center with huge wall screens monitors road conditions 24 hours a day and can communicate immediately with five smaller control centers in metro Atlanta. Surveillance cameras placed along highways determine speed and traffic volume and feed "real-time" information over 63 miles of fiber-optic cable. Electronic signs will warn of weather conditions or accidents. Operators will know within minutes or seconds if an accident happens and can quickly dispatch emergency crews. More than 130 electronic touchscreen kiosks located around the city will give travelers and visitors traffic data and public transportation and route information.
In addition, some commuters this summer will experiment with navigation units in their vehicles that will give them up-to-the-minute information on traffic. Others will use handheld computers to check traffic maps for the shortest route to their destination.
Some experts question how effective the technology will actually be at managing traffic. A rough winter and hardware availability problems have put the system behind schedule; it won't be fully operational until this summer.
"Maybe the technology will work, but whether it works to solve the traffic problems are two different things," says Truman Hartshorn, a geography professor at Georgia State University. "We don't have enough parallel alternate routes, so if the traffic is already jammed up, there's nothing you can do."
"It doesn't solve everything," says Shelly Lynch of the FHA. "The biggest benefit to people is that they have a better choice over their travel. They're better informed."
'The biggest benefit to people is that they have better choice over their travel.'
- Shelly Lynch, FHA