I edit several newsletters about transportation, including the AASHTO Daily Transportation Update and the Transportation Communications Newsletter. Each day these publications are filled with news items about technology and how automation is giving us new and exciting possibilities. With all this technology, it’s easy to think that AI can make everything work. I’m going to provide a different perspective.
My connection to the transportation field happened quite by accident. I planned on spending my career in broadcasting. It just so happened that my big break in radio occurred in 1979, when Shadow Traffic, a new company doing reports for the New York City area, hired me as an on-air reporter. At the time, I viewed it as just a radio job, but I later realized it was an introduction to a whole new career field. Unlike many who are reading this article, I had no training in transportation and did not take classes in subjects such as engineering or planning. What I did receive in my five years as a traffic reporter, though, was a deeper understanding of transportation operations.
One of my first lessons in transportation operations concerned developing relationships with agencies. Between traffic reports, we’d call police departments to find out if there were any incidents causing traffic delays. Keep in mind that this was before cell phones, traffic cameras, and traffic maps. We were entirely dependent upon folks at the agencies to let us know when there was a problem. There was no incentive for them to share information. In fact, they likely wanted to get me off the phone as quickly as possible. Most of my fellow reporters would just say something like, “This is Shadow. Anything happening?” The answer was usually “no,” even when there were significant problems.
I tried a different tact. I introduced myself by name and would engage in some brief conversation such as what it’s like being up at such an early hour or what some radio personality I worked with was like in real life. I’d occasionally visit the police departments so they could put a face with the voice they talked to every morning. I developed a rapport with these cops that encouraged them to be more willing to share information about what was happening. It wasn’t Shadow calling the Hillside Police Department, it was Bernie talking to Bill. Some thirty years later I still run into police officers who remember me from those phone calls.
After finishing my first stint as a traffic reporter, I found myself working for another new organization, TRANSCOM. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey established TRANSCOM in the mid-1980s. The idea was to have multiple agencies operating various pieces of the network in the tri-state area. When problems, both planned and unexpected, took place, numerous agencies quickly felt the effects. There were no formal means to share information among agencies.
TRANSCOM, from the start, depended upon technology to gather and share information. The tools were not very sophisticated by today’s standards. For example, they were using alphanumeric pagers and slow-scan video to collect data. What made TRANSCOM work were the interpersonal relationships that developed. These relationships took place on two levels. First, TRANSCOM staff put in considerable time and effort to meet with agencies from the front-line operations personnel to the executives. The second level consisted of meetings that brought together upper-level agency staff, where supporters of TRANSCOM could help convince their peers that TRANSCOM was worthy of their time and cooperation.
As you might imagine, there was much skepticism about what TRANSCOM was doing. It took patience and constant reassurance that TRANSCOM was not looking to take over anyone’s turf. The lessons I learned as a traffic reporter served me well at TRANSCOM. By making an effort to go out into the field to visit bridges, tunnels, and operations centers, we were able to develop relationships that were much deeper than any policy could lay out.
Similar experiences played out a few years later when I was co-chairing the operations group for the newly-formed I-95 Corridor Coalition. Something as simple as member agencies hosting operations meetings on their home field helped buy-in to the idea of working together. This strategy helped members see this group as their organization, not a group of which they were just a member.
In all of these work experiences, technology played an important role, but I would argue that the human side of ITS played a less seen and celebrated part in making the technology work and providing a fertile field for it to grow. As we look ahead to the future of ITS, it’s easy to get excited about the possibilities technology presents, but I believe we should never forget the importance of personal relationships in helping it reach its full potential.