Tunnels and the future of traffic management

Think about your favorite city or town and then imagine how hard it would be to move around that city if there was suddenly no access to tunnels for cars, metros, trains or even pedestrians.

Whether they are underneath our cities, through a mountain side or under a waterway, tunnels are essential components in our mobility networks. Of course, you probably use tunnels without ever considering the critical role they play in helping you get from point A to point B. I take that as a sign that tunnel engineers have done their work well. But in order to keep tunnels safe and efficient means of transportation, going forward we’ll need to adapt how we design new ones and, also how we refurbish existing tunnels.

I think about these issues, in my role as a Senior Project Manager for Tunnels at Arcadis, as well as my other role as chairman of the Royal Dutch Engineering Society for Tunnels and Underground work. It’s in that latter role that I recently had the pleasure of traveling to Sydney, to speak as part of Australia’s 7th annual Tunnel Operations & Maintenance Conference. The panel discussion I had on future opportunities on tunnel operations and the insights I took from listening to others inspired and challenged me. Since then, I’ve been thinking about how road tunnels will need to function in the future, in order to work with emerging developments in traffic management, or as we could call it, traffic 3.0.

The development of traffic management

Let’s start at the beginning, where we just had roads not being managed. When traffic intensity increased and complex structures that needed operating, like tunnels, were incorporated, traffic management evolved. Traffic 1.0 was just a physical network with certain areas, where traffic could get congested, that were subject to a limited amount of control and management. The various pieces of transportation infrastructure were in place and people used them.

And now, we’ve moved on to traffic 2.0, where the road network is managed and interacts with the individual structures in it. It is not just an interconnected traffic network, we also have people and advanced technology in place to operate these systems for all kinds of purposes: regulating traffic volume, directing vehicles and people away from danger or in order to take infrastructure temporarily out of use, to do maintenance. And tunnels, with their complex mechanical and electrical operations systems, are integrated into these traffic management schemes. But even now, tunnels are all too often bottlenecks, where traffic congestion happens despite our best efforts to manage the system.

Traffic 3.0

Traffic 3.0 is the next step in this evolution, which is driven by those principles of increasing safety and reliability and regulating traffic volume. While no one can say exactly what this future reality will look like, we can see the contours emerging, in developments such as satellite navigation, big data collection, smart phone interfacing, as well as connected and autonomous vehicles. It seems almost certain that, in order to cope with the ever-increasing demand for capacity, in the future, the people, vehicles and infrastructure, in our transportation networks, will be connected to one another. Traffic 3.0 is the future state in which we fully manage mobility and are able balance the supply and demand on the road network.

Achieving this will require an ecosystem of public and private sector players, working in collaboration. The benefits will be stable traffic flows, fewer accidents and maintenance efforts that prevent problems before they occur.

For the moment satellite navigation does not work in tunnels, a major problem, because positioning is an essential part of how autonomous vehicles work. But I expect that very soon companies will solve this challenge and become new partners in this eco-system.

The evolution of vertical transport

In the past decade we had a major change in vertical transport. With the use of smart algorithms and data collection it was possible to balance the supply and demand for vertical transport. This has led to a dramatic reduction of waiting times for modern elevators, despite the fact that the hardware is essentially the same as it always was.

Can we also balance the supply and demand of traffic capacity?

The evolution of tunnels

Just as traffic has evolved over time, tunnel engineering is evolving. At the conference in Sydney, I presented a lecture about how we’re working to refurbish our ageing tunnel infrastructure in the Netherlands. Actually, we have been taking tunnels that were built during the traffic 1.0 era and upgrading them to the safety standards of traffic 2.0. For example, during traffic 1.0, tunnel ventilation systems were designed with the sole purpose of pulling hazardous exhaust fumes out of the tunnel and pulling clean air into the tunnel. Nowadays, in the case of a fire, we want these systems to also allow operators to direct heat and smoke away from any people, who are fleeing from danger. I expect to see similar shifts in thinking about tunnels, as we start to upgrade them to work in traffic 3.0.

During that conference in Australia, several speakers gave examples of progress we’re already making in preparing tunnels for traffic 3.0. Mustafa Toker from Siemens Mobility showed how traffic management systems can already communicate with vehicles to guide traffic and prevent congestion in cities. Wayne Harvey, from VicRoads, spoke about traffic management systems that regulate the flow of vehicles accessing toll roads to prevent traffic jams. Another example he gave comes from the Maas tunnel, in the Netherlands, an old tunnel that, at this moment, is being refurbished and will get a traffic management system to improve safety conditions. The traffic management system in the city of Rotterdam responds, in case of a fire, by activating additional green lights throughout the city to guarantee, that the traffic won’t get stuck in tunnels.

Nearing the tipping point

At that conference, I was part of a panel discussion on future opportunities and risks in tunnel operations with Arnold Dix and Charles Karl. We all expressed the belief that cooperation is a key element to get this eco-system working. The Netherlands and Singapore, small countries that are used to setting up partnerships to advance technology and innovation, rank number 1 and 2, respectively, on ‘the autonomous vehicles readiness index 2019’. Additionally, the eco-system requires a strong system manager that sets good standards, protocols for interoperability, the certification of eco-system partners, cyber security measures and safety assurance systems.  One major outstanding question is who these system managers will be and what business case will draw players into this space? For now, this is uncertain, but change is in the offing.

We concluded that it’s important to be open to new developments, follow them closely and to take part in the discussions to make sure that tunnels don’t hinder this development. But I also believe that we need to be proactive. Over the past decade, tunnel operations with quantitative risk and scenario analysis have been developed to increase the safety. This type of expertise is not only helpful but necessary in the development of Traffic 3.0.

Sallo van der Woude

Senior Project Manager +31 (0)6 1138 3979 Ask me a question