Knowledge: the new gold

Knowledge: the new gold

There’s no doubt that connected and autonomous cars, fully integrated traffic networks, and all the exciting technologies that are in development in laboratories will radically change our future for society’s benefit. Patrick Son outlines how this will benefit to our cities

By definition, Smart Cities are about improving communities and the lives of their residents, but there’s a part of the equation that sometimes gets overlooked, a part that some very smart people at some very influential trade organizations recognized a half-decade ago. That part is how effective, creative transportation systems management and operations, what we call TSMO, can maximize the benefit of technology.

Leaders from the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America) and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), recognized that in all the justified excitement about technology, Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSMO) was getting left out of the conversation.

That’s the sometimes amazing, occasionally routine, but always crucial work that’s taking place in traffic management centers (TMCs), on the transportation system itself, and in the executive suites of departments of transportation. Those transportation leaders understood that human ingenuity, creativity, and experience would be a critical to the future of transportation and, by extension, Smart Cities.

They also understood that with their combined influence, they could not only lead the conversation but as a by-product, share the best operational best practices for departments of transportation, private sector organizations, and, most importantly, individual practitioners. With generous assistance from the US Federal Highways Administration, NOCoE was born.

Our mission is simple: to empower the TSMO community to succeed. We think the steady increase of agencies taking a TSMO approach is not only helping to save lives, time, and money for the traveling public, but is also a foundation for advancing the future of our transportation system. A TSMO approach creates foundations for the partnerships required to implement strategies across an entire city or region, allows for the coordination of all the data and technology that exists on the roadway, and supports the development of applications to both improve mobility and to benefit cities beyond the transportation system.

So you rightly ask, how does all this fit into a Smart Cities conversation right now? Knowledge sharing.

"We think the steady increase of agencies taking a TSMO approach is not only helping to save lives, time, and money for the traveling public, but is also a foundation for advancing the future of our transportation system"


Knowledge sharing across the country has served as an essential exercise to advance the TSMO industry overall, but also for agencies practicing TSMO, knowledge sharing and collaboration are proving to be essential aspects of implementing TSMO. At NOCoE, we realized early on that our most importation role would be as a conduit, a sharer of knowledge rather than the originator of that information.

Partly, we were driven by the speed of change in transportation technology and the need for operations strategies to keep pace, partly by the vacuum that existed and the siloed nature of practitioners. Many practitioners control traffic flow on America’s highways, others are involved in traffic incident management while still others are regional traffic engineers. What they had in common was a lack of a significant venue to share ideas, promote solutions, and exchange information. It’s not an exaggeration to say that just a few years ago, the primary go-to place for TSMO strategies and solutions was a friend’s office down the hall or maybe a peer in a neighboring agency.

That’s where we come in. There are tens of thousands of people engaged in TSMO on a daily basis, doing important and creative work, and we recognized that we could be most effective if we became the curator, gathering those strategies from practitioners, working with them to translate their successes for other agencies, and then sharing those strategies among the entire constituency.

Last year at NOCoE, we encouraged public and private agencies to submit entries for our first annual Best of TSMO Awards describing how their use of Transportation Systems Management and Operations solved problems, created efficiencies or improved safety. As a first-time awards event, we thought we might receive 15 submissions, maybe 20 if the stars aligned.

We ended up with more than 50 from all corners of the nation and without exception, each of them added a new strategy or solution to the conversation. We received detailed case studies highlighting scenarios as diverse as a massive, million- person hurricane evacuation that undoubtedly saved lives, to an impactful lane restriping initiative in Arizona that dramatically reduced crashes. We’ve spent the last six months publishing these entries as new case studies containing valuable TSMO ideas and solutions worthy of replication in other regions.

This type of industry-wide knowledge sharing exists in places like ITS Heartland as well. This regional ITS chapter set out to educate its membership on implementing and practicing TSMO by developing a ‘TSMO University’ program that used in-person and online tools to increase the knowledge, skills, and abilities of future TSMO practitioners in anticipation of states within their region looking to implement TSMO in the future. The program reached over 600 practitioners, a third of whom were private sector, and even extended the trainings to the whole country, with 20% of participants coming from outside their region. This desire to connect technology and TSMO is exemplary (and yes, ITS Heartland did win a NOCoE TSMO Award!).

But the will to share knowledge like this among the TSMO industry doesn’t exist simply because of the NOCoE or ITS Heartland; communications and inter-agency collaboration are an essential tenet of practicing TSMO within agencies to manage the transportation system.

"It’s not an exaggeration to say that just a few years ago, the primary go-to place for TSMO strategies and solutions was a friend’s office down the hall or maybe a peer in a neighboring agency"


As we learned in a recent NOCoE peer exchange, the City and County of Denver, CO has taken a TSMO approach to actively managing their arterials to reduce travel times during traffic incidents. On 18 June 2018 a multi-vehicle accident on I-25 just before 7am and just north of downtown, created a tenuous situation. The incident left a hazardous materials truck rolled on its side forcing the closure of all northbound freeway lanes during rush hour. It hit all the marks of a traffic nightmare.

During incident mitigation, for responders to do their work safely, large sections of highway would have to be closed and a huge volume of traffic would have to be re-routed onto local arterials. There was an almost immediate 400% increase in traffic volume onto Federal Boulevard, the main alternative route just west of the accident. Denver TSMO practitioners quickly took a strategic approach. They actively monitored the diversion routes, modifying signal timing as appropriate to reduce congestion. They flashed ‘interstate closure’ messages on variable message signs and collaborated with partner agencies to enact a coordinated, collaborative response. Eight hours later, as the remnants of the incident were cleared and I-25 North was reopened, the Denver TMC realized a 67% per cent reduction in travel times on Federal Boulevard directly attributable to the actions they took.

But TSMO programs are also using technology to push the boundaries of how we manage the transportation system. In Nevada, the Nevada Department of Transportation, Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, the Nevada Traffic Incident Management Coalition, the Nevada Highway Patrol, and the Nevada Department of Public Safety all contributed to the development of the Waycare Platform to advance operations.

As highlighted in our recent case study1 , Waycare is a cloud-based system that leverages in-vehicle data and artificial intelligence (AI) to help manage traffic and prevent crashes. Waycare aggregates real-time and historical traffic incident information, based on data from social media feeds, crowdsourcing applications and in-vehicle telematics, indicating possible traffic incidents and areas of concern. The Waycare Platform’s seamless, real-time sharing of incident information across agencies and disciplines yields a reduction in incident response times by 12 minutes and provided for a substantial reduction in secondary crashes via real-time information sharing with traveling public.

Denver is managing its main arterials with TSMO


"I encourage you to consider TSMO as both a foundation for the future of technology and as an example of knowledge sharing to advance the practice"


This work is going on now and as you, the readers of Thinking Cities, envision and build the Smart Cities of the future, I encourage you to consider TSMO as both a foundation for the future of technology and as an example of knowledge sharing to advance the practice.

If recent history and the development of intelligent transportation and other Smart Cities elements are any measure, there’s no doubt that where we are now is not where we will end up. Technologies and the strategies will inevitably evolve and morph, but ultimately whether you’re in transportation, Smart Cities, some variation or both, we are all driving to the same goal: building a safe, efficient future for ourselves and our neighbors. The best way for us, as one community, to outpace technology is to share knowledge every day: in our teams, across our departments and within our industry.

How will you share knowledge every day?


Patrick Son is Managing Director, National Operations Center of Excellence (NOCoE), based in Washington, DC