In a congested state like New Jersey, the Department of Transportation has no shortage of constituencies offering advice on how to solve the complex problems of getting people from one place to another safely and efficiently.
Alain Kornhauser, in his 41st year as professor of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton University, bristled right along with many other residents about the indignities and inconveniences of the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s recent jughandle “experiment” on Route 1.
But unlike a cranky newspaper editor who may organize his own corps of rush hour timekeepers (see story above), or angry but politically savvy residents of Penns Neck who can take their cause to both the media and to the streets, Kornhauser sees both the immediate concerns and the long-term. In an interview to discuss the big picture issues facing central New Jersey, of which the crowded jughandles are only one small part, Kornhauser quickly becomes a visionary, looking at two futuristic systems that would drastically relieve gridlock without having to worry so much about the existing road network.
The first is personal rapid transit, accomplished in pods that function much like horizontal elevators, and the second, closer to realization, involves automobiles driven by computers rather than people.
A personal rapid transit system, accessible within a block or two of every home, would take one or several individuals nonstop to any destination, which for more distant travel might be a New Jersey Transit station. “It is a technology that many of us thought would save the world, although it hasn’t quite done it yet,” says Kornhauser.
As the Princeton professor and transportation software entrepreneur envisions it, the system would have probably 10,000 stations, each on a siding off the main travel path, a network of perhaps 10,000 miles of guideways that cross each other at different levels to avoid accidents. Similar to an elevator, the number of people to board a pod would depend on how many are waiting at a particular station and going to the same place.
Computers would find the optimum path for each pod and enforce safe distances between them. In New Jersey, there might be 26 million trips in a day, each one nonstop to the desired destination. Travel would be at about 35 to 40 miles per hour. “You can’t go that fast on Route 1,” notes Kornhauser
The advantages would be legion. The system would be cheaper to operate than what we spend on roads and cars, he says, and it would cost probably $150 billion to build. But looking at the total infrastructure and what individuals spend currently on gasoline, he estimated that with this system the cost to individuals would probably be 60 percent of what they currently spend. The guideways would be above ground in most places, hence architectural impact is a serious challenge.
Kornhauser also works on autonomous vehicles that would take the place of automobiles, which he sees as a welcome improvement. “I try to keep the car between the white lines and not running into the vehicle ahead of me, but a computer should be doing that,” he says.
Once the technology is in place, the cars would become autonomous taxis that function similarly to pods on guideways. “Instead of 10,000 stations, you would have 10,000 taxi stands around New Jersey,” says Kornhauser. When a client arrives, a “taxi” is waiting.
Although the taxis will use existing roads, gridlock will be reduced because more than one person will ride in each vehicle. “The congestion on Route 1 is caused by the fact that essentially every vehicle that is on Route 1 has only one person in it,” says Kornhauser. “The way we use private automobiles gives little opportunity for people sharing a ride.”
But with autonomous taxis, sharing would be encouraged, and even if three people were in each car only a third of the people would be on the roadways and there would be no congestion. With this system, says Kornhauser, people would naturally have the opportunity to share a ride, like people naturally share elevators.
Given developments that Google has made in its car and Nissan’s announcement of a computer-driven vehicle, he says, we may just get to a future with less congestion and with a reduction in human error, another critical advantage of autonomous taxis (U.S. 1, November 19, 2008).
About 92 percent of all accidents involve some human error, Kornhauser says, and computer estimates suggest that with automated driving highway deaths could be reduced by 71 percent. “Nothing else — more airbags or better crash worthiness — even come close in making driving safer than automation,” says Kornhauser.
Not Yet Nirvana
For the moment, however, we have not reached the nirvana of transportation perfection, but struggle through the down and dirty daily drudge of getting from point A to point B as quickly as we can and with as little frustration as we can manage.
From a transportation planner’s perspective, we are in a universe of individual consumers who want to improve our utility in terms of place and time — that is, if we think another place and time will make us happier, we go there. But unless we can get there using our legs, we require some kind of technological help, like a car. But a car doesn’t get us very far without roads, and here economies of scale come into the picture.
Although a private entity could take on this task — as has been the case with freight railroads, where companies own the track, terminals, and rail cars and charge shippers to use their facilities — government has taken on this responsibility with regard to roads.
So the New Jersey Department of Transportation is the caretaker of Route 1, both for maintenance and for any improvements. Hence, although individuals can walk into a showroom, order a car of whatever color and with whatever gizmos they want, and then pay for it, they do not have the prerogative, as drivers on Route 1, to ask for a new lane, says Kornhauser. That’s in the department’s court.
But rather than a new lane, the department had a different idea. Says Kornhauser: “The agency, in whatever wisdom they use, looked at the situation and said, ‘Oh, we have a problem here, and we’re going to solve it by eliminating left turns at Washington Road and Harrison Street.”
In fact, he adds, they would have gone ahead with it as a solution had people not pressed them, asking, “Do you really know what the implications of that will be? Is it really going to solve your problem?” The department then relented a bit and decided to first implement its solution as a six-week experiment.
Kornhauser also found it somewhat unbelievable that nothing has been done with the traffic light at Carnegie Center Boulevard, noting that congestion from that point is almost backed up to the Interstate 295 interchange. “If they are going to try to fix something, it seems to me that’s one of places they should be trying to fix, as well as fix the whole corridor,” he says.
So what got us into this congestion nightmare? Kornhauser traces it back to the decision not to build the missing link in I-95 that would connect to I-287 — creating the only gap in the interstate from Maine to Florida. “They built the interchange in Ewing but never built the road,” he says.
After residents fought it and won, the consolation prize was that the money set aside for the I-95 extension was supposed to be used to improve Route 1. Some monies did move, but Kornhauser wonders what happened to the rest.
And since that time, he lists several projects have not been completed to relieve congestion on Route 1: The grade separated interchange at Harrison Street. An extension of Canal Point Boulevard to Nassau Park Boulevard. Frontage roads on Route 1. An underpass at Washington Road.
“What’s been done is that the whole intersection of Washington Road and Route 1 is a total mess,” says Kornhauser, who suggests that the backups on Washington Road in West Windsor have had an impact on land values in Penns Neck.
Given all that has not been done, he suggests that really fixing Route 1 has simply not been a priority for the Department of Transportation. Why aren’t we raising more funds?, he asks. Why is it that New Jersey has nearly the lowest state gas tax in the nation? Of the approximately $3.50 per gallon we are spending on gasoline, more than $3 goes to investors in oil and 14 cents to the state, he says, and we are supposed to build and maintain roadways with that money.
His solution would be to raise the gasoline tax, get rid of the exemption of gasoline from the sales tax, and put people to work building roads.
He also adds a little gibe about the experiment. “Maybe the reason they did this is to make it so screwed up to encourage people to raise money to do what they need to do. If that was their objective, they are doing a great job.”
A related project that Kornhauser maintains will not improve traffic flow is Princeton University’s move of the Dinky station, which he says will discourage people from using the Dinky, which in itself will add to traffic.
“I think we would want to improve things instead of spending money to make them worse,” Kornhauser says. The problem is that people are not going to sit and wait for a bus to take them to the new station, but will get into their cars and drive. Few people, he says, take the Freebie that is running now because the buses are not there when they need them.
“While the university is supposed to be so interested in sustainability and is going to the ends of the earth to bring environmental sustainability to the arts buildings — green roofs, geothermal, bike racks — the station is too far to walk to and instead people will drive to New York,” says Kornhauser. “The environmental impact of a trip to New York has completely negated the environmental improvements that the university is touting. The university doesn’t like the train; it likes cars, and it is basically destroying the Dinky.”
Joe Dee, director of communications for the DOT, of course has a different view of the current experiment. The section of Route 1 in West Windsor, he says, has been congested for many years, especially during peak periods in the mornings and afternoons.
“What we have seen is that we lose one of the three travel lanes on Route 1, northbound especially, when people are trying to make a left at Washington or Harrison,” he says. “Two lanes are at 50 miles per hour and one is at a standstill.” And when this happens, he adds, people in the right lane weave over into the center lane to get moving again.
But an affordable way out of this predicament has been out of reach. “The solutions that have been proposed in the past and looked at for many years involve very expensive proposals for overpasses and one for a tunnel at Washington Road,” says Dee. “These are enormously expensive projects for which there is no funding at this time.”
In addition to trying to improve the operational performance of Route 1, his department, says Dee, is also cognizant of the needs of affected communities. “That’s why we’ve been meeting with them so much,” he says, noting that the trial was originally scheduled for spring, but postponed due to concerns of the Princeton business community and the university.
Dee also emphasizes that the department has made other individual changes to improve flow at spots on Route 1. One was to eliminate the light at Nassau Park Boulevard, requiring motorists who wanted to turn left onto Route 1 to go via Province Line or do a U-turn over the bridge at Quaker Bridge Road.
At Harrison Street the DOT has also made changes to ensure that ambulances get through quickly. They created a second lane where Harrison Street meets Route 1 and, working with the ambulance crews and the hospital, they equipped ambulances with a device they can activate to hasten the light change at Harrison Street. Another capability in process for this device is to activate a flashing signal at the light on Route 1 south in corroboration a “no left turn on red when flashing” sign.
When asked why something has not been done about the Carnegie Center intersection mentioned by Kornhauser, Dee says, “We try to make improvements wherever we can on Route 1. We have to look at the corridor in its entirety, but it is not always possible to implement a solution in its entirety. Sometimes solutions have to be developed one part at time.”
Kornhauser was born in France, his mother French and his father a Ukrainian who had been a prisoner of war and escaped. The family moved to Pittsburgh when Kornhauser was seven. He earned bachelor and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering at Penn State and then a doctorate at Princeton University. After a year-and-a-half teaching stint at the University of Minnesota, he returned to Princeton University.
Kornhauser focuses on the modeling and analysis of transportation systems, work that also spawned ALK Technologies, which uses analytical capabilities he developed to restructure freight railroads. The company was instrumental in converting a number of bankrupt freight railroads into a prosperous industry through network modeling that determines where it is and is not profitable to move freight.
After its success with the freight railroad industry, ALK Technologies turned to trucking and built the first digital map database of North America so that truckers could set up routes more efficiently, reliably, and profitably. With the map database on hand, they decided that GPS was important, and in 1997 created the first “turn by turn” navigation system.
Kornhauser’s wife, Katherine, is president and his son, Michael, chief business architect of ALK Technologies, which employs 150 people here (now housed at 457 North Harrison Street) and about 60 in London. He has two daughters, one in computer graphic design and the other a market maker for equity derivatives at JP Morgan.
One way or another the situation with traffic flow in Princeton, West Windsor, and Route 1 has created some tension between the communities affected and the Department of Transportation. Although the Department of Transportation is doing what it can, within tight budget constraints, to keep traffic moving on Route 1 Kornhauser and others are concerned that the state has not made traffic flow enough of a priority to raise the funds to make it happen.
“The local transportation issue is that even though everybody is encouraging everybody to walk and for people to be conscious of environment associated with their mobility, most people in central New Jersey own a car and drive,” says Kornhauser. “It is basically the only way we have to get around, and it would be nice if those who provide roadways for them to operate, it would be nice if they did a little better job in providing roadway infrastructure.”
And regarding why the Department of Transportation is bemoaning its limited budget, he adds, “the reason is because the political process has not stepped up and said, ‘We’re going to charge more for gasoline by increasing the state gas tax so we can raise some funds so we can do these things,’ and in so doing put some people to work and spend money in New Jersey and then stimulate the economy rather than sending money to Saudi Arabia and Canada.”
At the same time Kornhauser is optimistic about the potential for implementing at least one of his futuristic systems, each of which would obviate the need for clumsy, yet inexpensive solutions like the latest experiment. “There are beginning to be some number of folks who see these as not only substantially improving the safety problem but also solving congestion and mobility problems — allowing mass transportation to become essentially the same as we have with automobiles and providing everybody with the mobility that those of us lucky enough to afford it and use a car have.”