US logistics professionals are tracking the status of the Highway Bill — formally known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act — and they are concerned about longer and less predictable lead times if our highways don’t get the necessary funding. But after reading a recent ARC Advisory Group strategy report titled “Smart Cities: A Global Imperative (available to ARC clients only), I realized that we also need more funding for intelligent transportation systems (ITS).

ITS are used in urban areas to improve traffic flow, safety, and sustainability. For many shippers and carriers, logistics involves far more than highway travel. When delivering goods to stores or factories in urban areas, or goods directly to consumers, the last few miles can be the most difficult.

An intelligent transportation system includes a range of applications; the ones most relevant for logisticians include:

Intelligent traffic signal management – This application actively manages and coordinates traffic signals to reduce congestion. Traffic signal management can also involve the ability of emergency responders to override red lights.

Video analytics – Real-time video that enables traffic controllers to identify problems, record and ticket red light and toll booth runners, and enforce special traffic zones.

Information and alerts – Message signs and other media can quickly broadcast weather, road condition, and other timely local information to drivers. Speed limits can be posted on electronic signage and can allow for variable speed limits to improve flow.

As more and more vehicles come to include sophisticated onboard computers and communication systems, including GPS, the future holds some interesting possibilities: collision avoidance, emergency vehicle notification systems, and even vehicles that drive themselves. But in the near term, spending money on intelligent traffic signal management, video analytics, and information and alerts will have an immediate payback.

Recent US activity in the area of ITS has been motivated by an increasing focus on homeland security, as ITS systems can involve surveillance of our roadways. But it would make sense to include more funding for smart transportation in the Highway Bill; we would get far more “bang for our buck” with this type of spending.