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September 12, 2023Episode 66. When Mobility Needs Are Like Snowflakes: TTI’s outposts focus on singular urban challenges.
FEATURING: Jason Crawford
It’s been said that all politics is local. Given the unique nature of major population centers everywhere, the same could be said for transportation.
About Our Guest
Head, Research and Implementation Division
With more than 30 years’ experience solving transportation problems, Jason Crawford heads TTI’s Research and Implementation Division, which includes TTI’s offices in all the major cities in Texas. Jason’s research portfolio includes work in air quality issues and freeway and managed lane operations, among other topics. He has more than a decade of experience as a mobility coordinator for high-profile construction projects in Texas, working closely with the Texas Department of Transportation at the local level to ease the impact of construction on travelers and local businesses.
Bernie Fette (00:16):
Hello and welcome to Thinking Transportation — Conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Major population centers throughout Texas share certain things in common. For one, they all have a requirement for efficient mobility, a network that allows for the smooth movement of people and products from point A to point B. But it’s in the details of that need where we find distinctions. Each city’s transportation problems are unique. What makes for a good fix in one place won’t necessarily work as well in a different place. And that’s why TTI has an active presence in all of the major population centers in Texas. Jason Crawford is a research engineer at TTI and the head of the research and implementation division at the agency. Jason, thank you for doing this.
Jason Crawford (01:19):
Thank you, Bernie.
Bernie Fette (01:21):
So TTI has been doing transportation research — problem solving for some 70 years, and from the very first days, our headquarters has always been at Texas A&M University. But at some point somebody said, you know, we really need to put some people on the ground in some of these other places, these growing cities, apart from our headquarters location. Can you tell us a little about how that branching out started and maybe why it was started?
Jason Crawford (01:51):
Yeah, I sure can. Actually, our first office outside of the Texas A&M University campus was in Houston in 1963. Dr. Dick McCasland set that up for TTI and we went down there to study highway operations, specifically on the Gulf Freeway. And then we used moving picture technology to capture what was going on with traffic so we could observe it actually moving. And Bernie, our Houston office in particular, that office has played a pivotal role in supporting the development of the regional traffic management center called Houston TranStar. That’s a very unique traffic management center in that it is a cooperative traffic management center between the Houston district of the Texas Department of Transportation, Harris County, the City of Houston, and then Houston Metro. And the work that we’ve done there is helping with a wide array of software applications to monitor traffic and then to display to the public what those traffic conditions are.
Jason Crawford (03:07):
A recent development that we have added to Houston TransStar is our roadway flood warning system where we use information on rainfall from the Harris County Flood District and information from TxDOT Houston with sensors located all over the region to warn motorists where roadways are starting to flood. In fact, that work has been so successful that the Texas Department of Transportation is looking to expand that statewide to different areas, obviously along the coast where flooding can be more predominant, especially with hurricanes, but also in Austin, San Antonio or Dallas with our rivers, and that we have flooding there. When I talk about hurricane evacuation, that’s actually something that the Houston office has also been involved with, not only in Houston but along the Gulf Coast. And with that, uh, they evaluate hurricane evacuation routes. They work with Army Corps of Engineers, the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Department of Emergency Management on what the responses are and how to effectively get people out of the Gulf Coast area when a hurricane is bearing down.
Jason Crawford (04:27):
Our second office that we opened was in Dallas in 1968, and that was at that time to help with some new technologies on US 75 or North Central Expressway with one of the first ever traffic control systems for highways. Recently, a few things that our Dallas office is involved with has been an evaluation of integrating the traffic app Waze into the Traffic Management Center. If people have used the Waze app on their phone, they know that they are using crowdsourced information. That being, when I go down the road and I see a hazard, I can use my phone or my Android CarPlay or some type of device in the car to issue a notice that there’s a hazard, could be debris, could be an animal, maybe a crash. That information goes to Waze. And in our evaluation, we brought that Waze information into the Traffic Management Center, DalTrans, and there we found that Waze for detecting crashes and for detecting road hazards, the majority of the time it was about 10 to 15 minutes faster than our traditional methods in the traffic management centers for detecting both crashes and road hazards.
Jason Crawford (05:55):
And that has huge implications in terms of traffic management center operators using this additional data source to better monitor our roadways, not only in Dallas, but in every major city where we have a traffic management center. Another project to show kind of some diversity in what we do — We have been working on something to extract information from crash reports, official records that are submitted to the Texas Department of Transportation whenever there’s a crash. And immediately you think a vehicle crash, but also it’s vehicles versus pedestrians or bicyclists in that form, most of the information can easily be put into a database. But the most important part of the data is a written narrative from the officer recording what actually happened leading up to the event of the crash. And what we’re doing there is we’re using natural language processing, computer vision and machine learning to extract from this narrative based description of the event to kind of rebuild and put some context behind what the crash was as opposed to how many lanes were on the roadway, was it lit, was it dark? Those are important pieces, but they’re not all of the story for understanding how a specific crash occurred.
Bernie Fette (07:19):
Okay. You and your colleagues have a presence in all of the major cities in Texas. How much of the work that you are doing or have done in each place you might say is common to all or most of the other big cities? And how much of that work is distinct to a particular region?
Jason Crawford (07:39):
I would say for most of the work that we’re doing in our urban office locations around the state of Texas, there’s more commonalities to it than distinctness. There is distinctness in the way that a region or a metropolitan area has certain issues, problems with the transportation system that may require very unique solutions. But one of the things that we deal with in all of the areas is congestion and how we are able to monitor that congestion and then bring solutions to try to relieve that congestion.
Bernie Fette (08:20):
I suppose that’s just one of the common things that we could expect. We’ve got growing cities all over Texas. And so those challenges for you and your staff are gonna be growing in terms of how to help manage that growth on the roadways?
Jason Crawford (08:32):
Yes, and we do that with our sponsors in the regions. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Typically in our urban offices, we have a very strong relationship with the local Texas Department of Transportation District office, as well as sometimes with cities and regional transit agencies, and then also sometimes with metropolitan planning organizations that are in the region.
Bernie Fette (08:57):
Let’s, if we could, look at a little bit closer at each of those areas where you and your staffs work, starting with the one where you’re based — in Arlington. What are you and your colleagues up to there?
Jason Crawford (09:08):
In Arlington, we’ve done a lot of work historically with the freeway system, the highway system. The office was established in 1986 and is there to support both the Fort Worth and the Dallas Texas Department of Transportation districts. Most recently in the Arlington office, we’ve been focused on evaluating wrong-way, driving with the Fort Worth district and trying to evaluate countermeasures for wrong-way driving, which is a problem in Fort Worth, but in every other major city in Texas. And also, one of the things that we’ve been doing since the mid 2000s is helping the Fort Worth district on large complex construction projects where we serve as mobility coordinators. And a mobility coordinator on a large construction project is really an ombudsman. So we interface with the district staff, with the contractor, with the project construction engineering inspection office, and the adjacent property owners and the general public. We try to identify problems that are coming up, work solutions with the contractor and with TxDOT before the problems become too big.
Bernie Fette (10:31):
What is it that makes TTI well-suited to that role? Because it sounds like you’re playing a bit of a liaison or fulfilling the needs of a liaison between the operating agency and the many stakeholder groups in the area that represent the users of the transportation system. I’m, I’m wondering what positions our agency so appropriately to be in that role.
Jason Crawford (10:57):
Really, it’s an impartial third party with technical knowledge. So as problems come up, we really don’t have an interest in either way things go besides trying to solve a problem. We’re not biased, say with a change order and making more money on the construction project. We’re not biased in a way where we’re designing anything. That’s not what we do. We’re talking about solutions and trying to bring people together and work out what the best solution is for the project. That’s really our goal is always to put the project first and the solutions that would help both the traveling motorists and the uh, property owners and residents near those projects.
Bernie Fette (11:51):
And ultimately the people who are going to be using those new roadways.
Jason Crawford (11:56):
Correct. Yeah. The daily users, every day, they are our repeat customers in work zones, and so we are trying to affect solutions that will improve their drive through the work zone so that they get through safely every day. Sometimes issues can be off the side when a property owner has a need not to impact access, and you’re trying to work the best way out to reconstruct something near that property or that business and really not try to impact them greatly. One of the phrases I use when I talk with businesses about upcoming impacts and the pain of work zones, because people do avoid work zones, but they are necessary to provide additional capacity or reconstruct failing infrastructure, is that TxDOT really wants the businesses to survive the construction so that they may thrive when the project is over. And then there’s public benefit.
Bernie Fette (13:04):
You shared a really interesting example there. Is there another example that could give listeners a sense of the variance or just how different a day in the life of a mobility coordinator would be?
Jason Crawford (13:19):
Well, a day in the life in the mobility coordinator is one, you can never really count on that. It’s the same. You could think today is gonna be real quiet and you could be out talking to property owners or working through an issue with the contractor that has cropped up because again, a business or other property owner near a construction project or adjacent to it, when something goes wrong, the solution and the problem needs to get worked on immediately. It’s not something that you can say, let me get to you tomorrow. And in terms of a variance of things that we do, one of the projects that I do assist with is the interchange reconstruction for I-30 and State Highway 360 in Arlington. And that project is very unique because it is right in the heart of Arlington’s entertainment district. The entertainment district is the home of Six Flags over Texas, the home of AT&T Stadium, the Dallas Cowboys, concerts, monster jam, rodeos. Um, it’s also the home of the Texas Rangers and what was Globe Life Park. Now it’s Globe Life Field. And Globe Life Park is now rebranded as Choctaw Stadium and is hosting several other sporting events. So all of these entertainment district venues are having events and schedules, and we try to minimize the construction impact around those.
Bernie Fette (15:00):
Because all of those operations, all of those venues continue to operate and people continue to travel to and from those locations, even while you and your partners in the operating agencies in the, in the area are trying to rebuild something that facilitates people’s movement to and from those places. It sounds a little like you’re trying to repair an airplane while it’s in flight.
Jason Crawford (15:31):
A little bit. My analogy is actually one I, I think people can really relate to. Most people have a long hallway in their house, maybe separates living area from bedrooms. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And what I talk about is if they hired a contractor to replace the carpet in that long hallway. Well, most of the time when we do it, we don’t require access between our bedrooms and the living area because if we did, the job would take longer. Right? There’d be more interference because we’re having to use that hallway. In the best world, that’s what you do is you just say, you have the whole hallway, replace the carpet. But with roadway infrastructure, we can’t do that. It is the hallway. People have to use it every day. And so it’s incumbent on us to do as much of what we can to notify people of the impacts so that it’s not a surprise, but for things that make it unique with the entertainment venues kind of working around those schedules.
Bernie Fette (16:31):
And those are some of the circumstances that in some cases are unique to a region, but might be shared in similar form with a lot of other big cities across the state. And that’s a role that TTI has been playing for some time now. That goes back, as you said, I think, to some of the earliest freeways in Dallas, right?
Jason Crawford (16:52):
Most recently we’ve started that work in the mid 2000s, but it did originate with work in our Dallas office on the reconstruction of US 75 North Central Expressway. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> from Plano in segments all the way down to basically downtown Dallas. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And then the last project there was what’s called the High Five interchange at I-635 and US 75. And that work that we did really brought together key stakeholders, brought together project champions, brought together the contractor, the TxDOT offices, and really worked towards, again, solutions that came up as a part of construction.
Bernie Fette (17:40):
Let’s talk a little bit about some of those other areas and some of the work that you know of that’s going on there. For instance, there’s Austin one considerable distinction there being that it’s the state capitol and that it’s home to one of the most gridlocked stretches of roadway in Texas.
Jason Crawford (17:59):
We’re talking I-35.
Bernie Fette (18:01):
That’s what we’re talking <laugh>,
Jason Crawford (18:02):
Right? Yeah. Our Austin office is involved with the Texas Department of Transportation, both at the headquarters level there in Austin with several technical divisions, but also the local Austin district. We’ve been involved in some of the reconstruction efforts and guiding those efforts for mobility coordination and providing, providing some training and some third-party review of that work. And also, we’ve been involved recently in the past few years, looking at different alternatives for that section of I-35 using some teams both in Austin, but from headquarters and from El Paso to evaluate some of the alternatives so that decision makers have more or better presented information to them from which to make an informed decision.
Bernie Fette (18:58):
And it’s those informed decisions that you help them arrive at that can help save money in the long run on these projects and help them get completed within their envisioned timeframe.
Jason Crawford (19:10):
Yeah. A lot of that work right, is done on the front end, evaluating those alternatives. But then when you get into construction, you hope that it’s a perfect world in construction, but there’s always gonna be surprises. And the surprises typically are the things that are underground and you can’t see, and you’re relying on old plans or some current investigation about those utilities that you don’t see that are underground.
Bernie Fette (19:38):
You mentioned that some of the work that is intended to benefit the decision making process in Austin for road construction, that some of that work is happening actually in El Paso. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, because we’ve got staff with wide range of skills and areas of expertise. But since you mentioned El Paso, let’s talk a little about what’s happening there.
Jason Crawford (19:59):
Yeah. In El Paso, that office, I believe was set up in response to increasing border traffic demands and congestion. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that’s still a focus of the El Paso office working directly there in El Paso and other ports of entry along Texas and Mexico in monitoring what that congestion is using technology, some of the things that that office has researched, but also that office has some folks that are involved in what’s called multi resolution modeling. So in our technical world, we have very high level modeling that’s used to understand overall travel patterns. That’s travel demand modeling. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Then we have something several layers deep called micro simulation modeling. That would be where engineers are looking at the operation of lanes coming together, intersections, modeling different alternatives at that very small level. So this multi resolution modeling is kind of in between large regional models and very small micro simulation models. And that multi resolution modeling is what was applied in Austin to evaluate some of the alternatives there to then give information to the decision makers on what direction they ultimately chose.
Bernie Fette (21:27):
For rebuilding or expanding Interstate 35.
Jason Crawford (21:30):
Bernie Fette (21:31):
And the work in El Paso with the border crossing time monitoring, I’m guessing must have extra relevance now in the wake of all the challenges that the United States has faced in terms of its supply chain issues.
Jason Crawford (21:45):
Trying to get the trucks across, understanding what those wait times are is very important to the decisions that they make.
Bernie Fette (21:53):
And some of the other work that is happening there in El Paso also is being applied I think in Laredo where we also have a presence.
Jason Crawford (22:00):
Yeah. Again, the monitoring for border crossings can also be applied there in Laredo. It’s another big hub with Nuevo Laredo right across the border, and those areas, again, are experiencing large growth from all of the cross -border trade traffic and that trade traffic with the large trucks. And you’re having to be processed again at a port of entry going to or from the United States, Mexico. It takes time to be inspected. And so they’re dealing with that congestion. Those areas also are growing like other areas in Texas as population is being attracted to those cities.
Bernie Fette (22:41):
Right. And San Antonio, you have a lot going on in San Antonio. What are you doing there?
Jason Crawford (22:47):
In San Antonio? We’ve got a few groups there. One that focuses on helping the local agencies, the San Antonio, Texas Department of Transportation District, as well as other districts in South Texas, Laredo, Pharr and Corpus Christi. And then also we have a group in San Antonio that is dedicated to utility engineering research. So when I talked about in Austin, kind of the problems that get found underground and can cause delays, that group is researching best practices and how to minimize those surprises, how to understand what it is we’re gonna be dealing with in the relocation of underground utilities. And then a third area in San Antonio is the Youth Transportation Safety Group. They work with school districts and universities to promote transportation safety.
Bernie Fette (23:48):
And in Waco, which I believe is our newest location,
Jason Crawford (23:52):
Waco is one of the newest locations that we have. And we established that in the 2000s. As I-35, we keep talking about I-35, but when that went under construction in the Waco district, we also provided some mobility coordination assistance because there were several projects by different contractors, but they would abut or they would influence each other. And so we were providing a level of coordination between all of the projects with lane closures. And that work is continued until recently when I-35, one of the last segments, not the last, but one of the last segments was finishing up there in the heart of Waco, close to Baylor University, and then the very final segment of I-35 through Waco has been funded. And so we would expect that we would be assisting Waco on that in the future, but our Waco office isn’t just limited to the mobility coordination effort on I-35, we’ve expanded that to look at safety in the district using connected vehicle data to understand things like hard braking events or crashes, understanding what was going on with vehicles up to that point, as well as we do other work such as work on human trafficking.
Jason Crawford (25:24):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative> or work on snow and ice guides. So again, we might be supporting the local area with work that we do that’s there, that really in, in all of our offices around the state, we do work also broadly for other topics.
Bernie Fette (25:42):
Right. You’ve got these pockets of distinct expertise that in addition to what we might think of or what our listeners might think of as traditional transportation topics, there are other considerations, other things that are outgrowths of the transportation activity in major cities. One of them being efforts to curb the problem of human trafficking that you mentioned. Not necessarily something that people would think of in terms of a transportation problem, but it’s very much so.
Jason Crawford (26:13):
Yeah, it is very much so and and really that project that we’re working on is to develop a toolkit for those in departments of transportation and construction for them to be able to recognize potential human trafficking. Our workers are out, they’re on the roadways, they see a lot of things. They might be at adjacent convenience stores or restaurants or fast food, and the human trafficking occurs along our roadways. So the more that we can raise awareness of what the signs are for risk for someone that may be trafficked and understand how we can be involved to bring the authorities in and maybe save someone, that is a very noble goal for what we’re doing out there on the transportation system.
Bernie Fette (27:07):
I’m really curious about what you think are some of the biggest challenges facing major urban areas. We’ve covered a lot of examples in the urban areas where TTI has a presence. What are the biggest challenges facing major cities, not only in Texas, but beyond our state as well? I’ll put it this way, if somebody gave you a blank check tomorrow and the only catch was that you had to spend it on research implementation that would have a relatively high return on the investment, what would you work on?
Jason Crawford (27:40):
Well, I’ll answer the question two ways. The challenge that’s facing all of our cities is growing congestion, and that growing congestion is a consequence of economic shifts and economic development because as Texas is experiencing a flow in from other states, California, New York, and others. Seeking a state with no state income tax. Corporations relocating to Texas, they’re bringing jobs, jobs bring people, those jobs support other supporting businesses. So we have a lot of economic benefit from it. So the congestion is one of the biggest challenges, but if I got the blank check and I could really affect the transportation system hands down, I would put it on safety. I would put it on safety for pedestrians, for school kids, both pedestrian and riding bikes. You know, Texas just restarted school up in this last week or so, and it’s heartbreaking to see on the first day of school an article in the news about a child was hit and killed on their bicycle, on their way to school the first day. And I don’t know if congestion and hurried lives and fast pace of modern society is what does that or distractions that we have, whether that’s in-vehicle distractions or distractions from stress in our own lives. But safety hands down is something that I would really invest in, not only for those pedestrians, but even motorists. We want every person to be able to go home at night because they’re a mom or a dad or a son or a daughter, and we just want everyone to be home safe every night.
Bernie Fette (29:48):
You may have already started to answer my last question, which is, what is it that motivates you to show up to work every day?
Jason Crawford (29:58):
It’s the safety aspect, thinking what we can do to keep people safe. Also, I get a great deal of satisfaction out of working directly with our local partners on issues where they are looking to implement solutions, and then those solutions wind up being put out in our transportation system. But it’s really about how I can come and think about the safety of other people and how we can affect that.
Bernie Fette (30:30):
Jason Crawford — Research engineer at TTI and the head of the research and implementation division at the agency. Jason, thanks very much for sharing your time,
Jason Crawford (30:41):
Bernie, thank you very much. It was a pleasure to visit with you today.
Bernie Fette (30:46):
It was Tip O’Neill, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who was famously known to say in the 1980s: All politics is local. We could make the same argument about transportation. Few things tie communities together more practically or profoundly than their mobility systems. And no two of those systems are exactly alike. That reality will always be at the foundation of the work that’s done through TTIs regional service centers. Thanks for listening. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe and share this episode, and please join us again next time for a conversation with Mark Willis, host of Road Dog Trucking News on Sirius XM satellite radio. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.