Written by: James Delamere, President of Stinson Owl-Lite
Work zones on roads have continuously evolved in the past century, from vintage smudge pots to warn drivers of dangers at night to modern reflective signs, cones, barriers, arrow boards and more. The term ”Smart Work Zone” started popping up around 20 years ago and Stinson has been deploying them
for the last 15 years; however, SWZs were never widely adopted due to a number of cost and technical challenges. Due to recent advancements in technology and economies of scale, we’re beginning to see SWZs embraced in the market more and more. This has left me wondering whether Smart Work Zones are FINALLY starting to live up to their name and potential. In this blog I’ll discuss the evolution of Smart Work Zones, where we see them going, and what the emerging benefits for safety, mobility and project management could be.
For years, a roadway work zone was merely an area delineated by traffic cones and traffic signs to warn drivers of its presence. They have been successful because they are highly visible, increase driver awareness and make drivers cautious. Most initial advances in smart work zones, such as flashing beacons and electronic arrowboards, revolved around the core concept of increasing visibility and conspicuity of the work zone.
Temporary beacons and electronic arrowboards were a welcomed improvement to work zones however they needed to be powered by diesel generators, which were expensive and difficult to maintain. The evolution and subsequent adoption of cost-effective, reliable solar powered systems in the early 2000’s solved the problem of providing power to temporary beacons and arrowboards. Soon after portable variable message sign (PVMS) trailers powered by solar panels were introduced and quickly became a common sight on construction sites across North America.
The start of Smart Work Zones began with the introduction of industrial cellular modems in PVMS, primarily to avoid having to manually program the messages at the roadside, but also to provide remote monitoring and the ability to change the messaging in special cases and emergencies. These cellular modems were initially quite expensive but the availability of low-cost modems and the continued drop in the cost of cellular data plans has heralded a revolution in cell modem use on almost all electronically controlled devices in the work zone. For example, The Ministry of Transportation Ontario (MTO) has required cell modems in all their work zone PVMS for many years now.
Since about 2014 it seems that advances in sensor technologies, material sciences and software has unlocked many innovations in smart work zones. Through combining these new sensors and software with traditional PVMS, Smart Work Zone concepts and aspirations that had been talked about for years have now become feasible and practical. Now CCTVs, microwave sensors, radar sensors, Bluetooth/Wi-Fi sniffers and many other sensors are an integral part of Smart Work Zone systems adopted in Canada. Some of the most popular smart work zone systems we’ve seen emerge over the past 5 years are:
- – Temporary queue end warning systems
- – Travel time advisory systems
- – Truck entrance / exit warning systems
- – Work zone speed monitoring and
- – Incident detection and surveillance systems
Going forward, there seems to be a much greater focus on data collection, mapping app integrations and traffic signal optimizations to minimize congestion. The Greater Toronto Area has seen a number of large Light Rail Transit projects launched over the past few years with many more planned. These are huge projects which disrupt traffic on major arterials for 5-10 years which, as you can imagine, has a huge impact on congestion. As a result, we’re seeing an increased focus on advanced traffic signal optimization and extensive multi-modal data collection. Both are used to reduce congestion as well as identify safety concerns related to pedestrian and cyclist movements within the work zone. The data has also been used by agencies to determine strategic lane closures and construction activity based on actual measured road conditions opposed to traditionally static time windows. This has been especially useful during COVID-19 because agencies took advantage of reduced traffic volumes that were detected by SWZ solutions when people started working from home.
Today, Smart Work Zones provide unprecedented accuracy, reliability and real-time traffic control at large work zones through advanced sensors, edge processors and cloud-based software. SWZ systems have also evolved and matured to a point where the systems are very simple to deploy, maintain and connect. This simplification has encouraged contractors to embrace these technologies more than ever before.
For Road Users
The focus of Smart Work Zones is no longer solely to make road drivers aware of the work zone boundaries, they go beyond, and provide more contextual and useful information. SWZs are now connected systems which relay accurate, real-time information including when a work zone is active (i.e. construction workers are present), the expected delay using travel time systems, as well as alternate route suggestions on map apps such as Waze and Google maps. New generation road users tend to trust this live information more than traditional signs and cones, and therefore, these systems help them plan alternate routes and make drivers more aware and cautious. A focus has also been placed on vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists, often providing dedicated lanes and sidewalks for them to ensure their safety.
For Traffic Managers
The jury is still divided amongst traffic managers in Canada regarding the best configuration of Smart Work Zone systems for different types of road construction activities. Time travel systems, CCTV monitoring and queue-end warning systems are now common in most highway and major road work zones.
Traffic managers are now increasingly advocating for the use of technology to monitor safety and compliance in work zones. Speed compliance monitoring, traffic volume monitoring and CCTV surveillance are their first choice to ensure incident monitoring and compliance. Efforts towards shared responsibility and transparency by sharing road data (including work zone data) with emergency services, environmental agencies, and contractors is becoming more common. Smart Work Zones play an important role in generating, collecting, and sharing accurate reliable data with all stakeholders.
For Construction Managers
Believe it or not, construction managers are the biggest beneficiaries of Smart Work Zone systems. Not only do these mature, easy-to-use systems help comply with mandatory project requirements, but they also provide tools to monitor & measure safety conditions throughout the work zone. Modern SWZ systems collect data that allows construction managers to make informed decisions.
We worked with one of our customers, a primary contractor of an LRT corridor in Toronto, to deploy one of the most advanced Smart Work Zones in Canada. Through extensive data collection and reporting they’ve been able to use factual, reliable weekly traffic volume data to get additional lane closures approved during COVID-19 while maintaining similar travel times for road users. The contractor is also testing advanced video analytics technology to monitor changes in traffic, pedestrian and cyclist volumes as well as to perform traffic signal optimization and incident detection along a heavily congested corridor within the work zone.
The success of these projects gives us a preview of what we can expect in the future for Smart Work Zone technologies in urban areas. Universities such as Ryerson University are now actively studying the impact of dynamic staging in work zones on traffic. We at Stinson ITS are proud to be associated with these studies, projects, and unique use cases at the forefront of Smart Work Zone innovation and adoption in Canada.
Reliable, easy-to-use Smart Work Zone systems, which help improve safety, user convenience and compliance in a work zone through transparent sharing data, information, and responsibilities between all stakeholders of road construction, will lead the future roadway work zones. There will be continued adoption of both stand-alone and holistic connected work zone systems which provide data to help drive decisions on construction zone layouts, lane closures, compliance, alternative routes, and reduce response time of emergency services.
Connected and automated vehicles are also opening new possibilities for Smart Work Zone systems and we predict that communicating safety-critical messages directly to the vehicles from work zones would be a major area of innovation in the future.
You can view the slide deck here: https://lnkd.in/eWUfUjD
You can read the answers to the Q&A portion here: https://lnkd.in/emA6ceP