The North Seattle Advanced Traffic Management System (NSATMS) was envisioned as a multi-jurisdictional arterial traffic data collection and data sharing system that would offer agencies and local governments throughout the greater Seattle, Washington, area real-time access to timely regional information about traffic conditions and traffic device status. The goals of the system were to promote regional agency coordination and cooperation, manage area traffic more efficiently, and serve as a data source for future metropolitan transportation planning and management efforts. The system would feature a central database management system that would collect information about traffic conditions and traffic device status throughout the region, and a wide-area network of remote workstations that would give participating jurisdictions access to that database.
In 1994, the Washington State DOT initiated a project to test this concept by developing an arterial data sharing system for an urban region that includes Seattle, unincorporated King County, and selected jurisdictions within northern King County and southern Snohomish County; it would also provide a testbed and data source for state intelligent transportation systems (ITS) activities. However, because of technical and project management issues, the system as originally envisioned was not implemented.
This lesson is based on excerpted results from the project’s evaluation report.
ITS projects that involve a partnership of agencies and jurisdictions should establish a clear vision of the desired outcome and products at the outset, and they should communicate the progress made toward that vision throughout the project. An unambiguous specification of the purpose and utility of a complex project such as the North Seattle Advanced Traffic Management System, with strong follow-through in communicating that vision to project participants, would have helped minimize confusion about the project’s intent and products as the project moved forward and personnel changed.
The NSATMS project had an ambitious objective: develop a large-scale, real-time data collection, archiving, and access system with coverage across a regional arterial network that encompasses multiple jurisdictions and traffic control device types. This project involved software development, hardware and software integration, and cooperation among public and private sector entities, including a number of jurisdictional partners at the city, county, and state levels. Because of a combination of technical challenges, differences in perception and expectations, and project management difficulties, the project was not completed as originally planned. One such issue involved communications with participants regarding the nature and objectives of the project. Shortcomings in that process created difficulty in sustaining the interest, focus, and participation of the users of the system.
The significance of a clear project vision and effective communications with project users emerged in the following evaluation results:
- Develop and reiterate a clear message about ITS project objectives to help minimize potential confusion during personnel turnover. In a complex multi-partner project, effective communication among participants can have a significant impact on partner perceptions and contributions. In the NSATMS project, the communications process was hindered by changes among personnel assigned to represent each partner jurisdiction. As persons involved with the project were promoted, reassigned, or moved to other jobs, their places on the project were taken by others. As a result, individuals who participated in the development of the NSATMS in its early stages were replaced by people who had not participated in the early development of the project's objectives, functionality, or implementation approach, nor in resolving the philosophical, logistical, and technical issues that had arisen at that time. In addition, this reassignment of responsibilities was not always accompanied by a transfer of knowledge regarding the history and status of the project and its significance to the agency, community, and region. These factors, combined with a reduced level of communications with partners after the initial stages of the project, resulted in misperceptions about the nature of the project. For example, some participants were confused about the primary focus of the project (e.g., freeway or arterial), the principal clients (jurisdictions or travelers), and the level of centralized traffic control capabilities. These issues could have been addressed with a process to inform participants about project goals, objectives, and status.
- Suggested actions that can be taken to address this issue include monitoring changes in project partner membership to identify new members, then providing opportunities for individual or group briefings (written or verbal) on the nature and status of the project. Such briefings could also be beneficial to other interested observers of the project who might wish a more formal introduction to the history and issues of the project than they would normally get from informal conversations or occasional attendance at meetings. A central organized collection (written and/or online) of meeting minutes, documents, and newsletters can also serve as a supplementary form of “institutional memory” to help ease the transition for new participants.
- Maintain contact with project partners throughout the process, regardless of the project stage. The level of communications at every stage of a regional ITS project affects partner involvement and attitudes. A series of participant group meetings, combined with other forms of project updates, can keep all participating agencies informed, involved, and supportive of the project. In the NSATMS project, participants noted the benefits and usefulness of user group meetings that were held on a monthly or bi-monthly basis during the first two years of the project, and contrasted that with the infrequency of meetings in subsequent years.
Project management noted that the initial user group meetings during the project’s start-up, functional requirements definition, and function prioritization phases were put on hold at the start of the software development and testing phases, with the intention of re-convening the user group once a product and a field implementation schedule were available for demonstration and discussion. However, regular communications with project partners, even during the software development and testing phases of the project, would have offered the opportunity to 1) develop and reinforce ongoing working relationships with counterparts in other jurisdictions on a regular basis; 2) encourage convergence of viewpoints by giving parties with differing opinions the chance to meet directly and discuss their perspectives; 3) bring newcomers up to speed on the project; 4) discuss implementation issues; and 5) keep the group informed about technical and administrative decisions or changes that may have been made during the software development process. Ongoing communications after the initial project phases would have helped minimize misperceptions about the nature of the project, particularly among those who were not original participants.
- Communicate with all project partners regardless of varying roles. A program of regular communications with project partners can help balance the natural differences in the level of participation among partners by ensuring that all participants receive basic information about project progress as well as ongoing issues and their resolution. This in turn encourages project “buy-in” and helps sustain support.
- Project communications are affected by the attributes and role of each partner. For example, the role of smaller communities in the NSATMS was less prominent than that of larger communities. This was because smaller jurisdictions had a smaller impact on regional traffic issues because of their size or their location, because they contracted out their traffic (signal) operations tasks and were thus not directly involved in as many aspects of traffic operations management as their larger counterparts, or because they contributed fewer data to the shared database of the project and therefore were less involved in the discussions and decision making related to technical implementation of the data collection and sharing process. As a result, it is more difficult for those communities to stay “in the loop” of technical and management decisions of the ITS project; conversely, a project that does not require the participation of transportation professionals in smaller communities might lack the perceived significance to compete with local issues for their time and attention.
- The net result is that if a smaller community seems to have a less direct influence on the project, and vice versa, the perceived importance of actively maintaining contact between the project and those partners can be affected. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to maintain that link, both for the project and for the individual community. First, the project can benefit from the infusion of new ideas from smaller community partners into the project planning and implementation process. The value of these views could stem from the unique perspectives or challenges of smaller jurisdictions, but there is also value in simply bringing a variety of new experiences, information, and solutions to the discussion table. Second, a smaller community’s role in regional transportation can become more significant in the future as growth patterns change, traffic levels increase, and new transit systems are implemented; in such cases, proactive steps by a regional transportation system such as NSATMS to establish a working relationship with communities that are emerging regionally would benefit the project as well as the region. Third, the active participation of smaller jurisdictions in the development of a system such as the NSATMS enhances the likelihood that the system will be a valuable planning and management tool for them as their regional role and influence expands.
An ongoing process of communication with project partners to reiterate the central goals of the project and keep participants apprised about the project’s status would have helped sustain enthusiasm and support for a complex ITS project such as the NSATMS, which had many partners and a long development period. Sustained communication efforts could also have been used as a tool to help overcome issues of personnel turnover and varying perceptions of project objectives that have the potential to affect long-term support for a project of this type.