Innovations in ITS promise increasingly nuanced data interactions between an increasing number of systems. The potential benefits of community-scale information exchange have contributed to the concept of a smart community. In the transportation sector, this complex ecosystem can combine information gathering tools and data analytics to promise commuters greater safety and less congestion, among other benefits.
With a population of roughly 90,000, Fort Smith, Arkansas, has transportation data and challenges that are quite distinct from higher population communities where such technologies are often deployed. In collaboration with the Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization, Fort Smith entered a competitive challenge run by a private sector entity to test an intersection-centered system, being selected as one of four finalists to receive the system and support throughout its installation and deployment.[i]
The technology made use of a traffic signal controller and other local sensors already in place. The technology added connected this gathered data to a dashboard, allowing local engineers easy access and visualizations. An algorithm built on this data to recommend changes to signal timing, with a goal of reducing congestion and increasing intersection safety. The 20-21 intersections chosen for deployment were defined by red light running and safety concerns, with distinct challenges because of poor traffic circulation planning between low-income housing, retail shopping, pedestrian traffic, bicyclists, buses, and more.[ii]
Frontier MPO staff noted the pandemic as an obstacle to the project’s full ambitions and structure. Beyond hindering intended public outreach efforts, COVID-19 reduced traffic levels and prevented the involvement of a previously expected team of traffic signal engineers. For Frontier MPO, the data collected during the deployment was most valuable, providing a foundation for future opportunities. While it was difficult to measure impacts from traffic data altered by the pandemic, the information and partners acquired during the process offered credibility and opened doors to a number of later projects, and they noted the number of small cities, similar in size to Fort Smith, that could benefit from ITS ecosystems if less constrained by funding, revenue, and resources.[iii]
That data being leveraged into other efforts demonstrated the importance of a strong foundation upon which to expand success. Lessons learned from other locations were applied to efforts by Frontier MPO to develop an MPO-wide road safety plan, which received FHWA funding and has benefited further from a Safe Streets for All (SS4A) Grant. Information collected along Roger Avenue supported work that led to a $1 million bicycle-sharing grant, despite bikeshare programs typically taking place in more affluent areas. The collaborations that have been enabled by this improved data environment have not come without their own challenges, but their potential to succeed and to chase more specific projects in grant applications has emerged from a more complete information ecosystem.[iv]
Operating Smart Infrastructure Systems
Fort Smith’s Streets and Traffic Control Department was directly involved in the implementation of these smart intersection tools. The department director likened the experience to a beta test, Fort Smith being used to test software for use in similar communities, with changes and adjustments made as needed. There were challenges in the process, one being the need to install cellular communication systems on certain traffic signals to make the system function, which were funded by the vendor through the competitive challenge program. The system implemented was noted by city staff as costing approximately $40,000 to $50,000 a year, a cost including the training of personnel.[v]
Following the challenge, Fort Smith opted to go in a different direction while continuing to invest time and resources into deploying intersection improvements with a previous vendor. The Streets and Traffic Control Director noted Fort Smith’s 155 signalized intersections as a prominent factor, with the system installed through the vendor challenge covering a limited number of intersections with a fixed installation that could not be moved once installed. To cover a larger swathe of intersections, Fort Smith would have had to pay more to expand the system, and they ultimately favored a smaller number of movable devices. This will allow Fort Smith to monitor patterns and conditions of the entire city, portions at a time with movable devices, at less cost to local government and taxpayers.[vi]
[i] Cho, Aileen. (2020). “Four Cities Will Receive Smart Intersection Technology.” Engineering News Record. https://www.enr.com/articles/49538-four-cities-will-receive-smart-intersection-technology
[ii] Cho, Aileen. (2020).
[iii] Personal communication with Reese Brewer, April 2023.
[iv] Personal communication with Reese Brewer, April 2023.
[v] Personal communication with Matt Meeker, April 2023.
[vi] Personal communication with Matt Meeker, April 2023.
This report was delivered to the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2023. It was primarily authored by NADO Associate Director Carrie Kissel and NADO Research Fellow Danny Tomares. Many transportation agency staff and others assisted with this project in a variety of ways. We offer deep and heartfelt thanks to all the individuals who have provided information and images, consented to be interviewed, and offered editorial guidance in support of this research. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. DOT or the NADO Research Foundation.
To read more about the NADO Research Foundation’s ITS case studies, follow this link.