Jan 17, 2018

Why Smart Cities Need Better Road Weather Data (And How To Get It)

Winter Road Maintenance

At the heart of every smart city what do you find? Roads.

Roads are a major component within and between every smart city. They’re how we move, how we stay connected.

This could explain the increase in smart city transportation solutions around the globe. We’ve seen the development of everything from responsive traffic lights to smart crosswalks – all of which are covered in our blog post, “How Intelligent Transportation Systems Are Accelerating Your Commute”.

But something is still missing. Accurate road weather data is crucial to the maintenance of safe roads, yet is often left out of the ITS conversation.

The Missing Piece of the ITS Puzzle
While our roads are seeing technological advancements that are simplifying commutes and reducing the environmental impacts of transportation, advancing road weather technology is often overlooked.

Road weather is measured using various sensors, and is monitored to let maintenance crews know how transportation corridors will respond to various meteorological events, like rain or snow. Monitoring road weather is a key component of maintaining safe transportation routes and effective road maintenance programs.

It makes sense that we’re not really talking about road weather and maintenance – plowing roads and mitigating floods aren’t exactly flashy topics to most people. But smart cities really should consider advancing road weather monitoring practices, because safe roads help enable vibrant, connected communities.

Why Safe Roads Matter
Implementing responsive street signs and crosswalks will do wonders for commuters, but won’t be much help if a driver loses control of their vehicles due to black ice.

TechCrunch wrote an article in 2015 regarding Smart Cities and their advancements in traffic management. The article points out that safety is a key component to the development of any smart transportation solution.

When people feel safe to commute, they’ll venture out into their community and support businesses, which boosts the economy. So logically, maintaining safe roads should be a key component to any smart city that hopes to support a vibrant, moving community.

Investing in highly accurate road weather technology to improve road maintenance is a key tactic in maintaining roads that are safe for commuters.

So where are we at right now with measuring road weather? Is there a smart city transportation solution? Let’s talk about it.

What the Heck is “RWIS”?
Have you seen the term RWIS floating around anywhere? Have no idea what it means? RWIS, otherwise known as a “Road Weather Information System” is the primary means for government agencies to monitor roadways and how they react to meteorological conditions.

A traditional RWIS is composed of various sensors that monitor things like wind speed and direction, air temperature, humidity, precipitation and solar radiation. The sensors collect pertinent weather data, which can be translated into forecasts. These forecasts help predict how the road will react to various weather events – helping determine if road maintenance crews need to take action. This could be anything from predicting the formation of black ice and choosing to salt the roads to calculating a large snowfall event and timing snow plows to ensure roads are clear.

This all sounds great! RWIS monitors the roads, and road maintenance crews take action. Now the roads are safe, right? So, what is there to improve?

The Problem With Traditional RWIS
Traditional RWIS is a highly effective way to monitor road conditions and works as a great guide for winter road maintenance. The issue is – we need more stations! Full RWIS stations require a large upfront investment and can require a decent size of road side real estate. This wouldn’t be an issue if smart cities have large capital budgets to purchase RWIS systems and lots of space to put in the station. This isn’t the reality though – roadside space is meant for pedestrians and budgets are often tight. This results in a low density of RWIS stations. Now let’s take a look at Calgary, AB to see why this affects the accuracy of road weather data.  

The Many Factors Affecting Road Conditions
Back in November (2017), Calgary experienced a major temperature variation within the city. The Calgary International Airport was recording a temperature of -8.1°C, while the Springbank Airport was recording 8.4°C. That’s a 16.5°C difference within the span of 25 kilometres! It’s highly unlikely that the road conditions are the same below zero as they are above zero – but it’s also highly unlikely that there are two RWIS stations within this 25 kilometre space to record this temperature fluctuation.

There’s more than just temperature fluctuations that can affect road conditions, too. Road design, surrounding infrastructure, slope, surface roughness, and altitude can all change how a road reacts to a weather event.

Think about smart cities and their cores. There’s going to be tall apartment buildings that create shade on roadways. That can certainly change the way roads react to the weather. All of these fluctuations make it difficult to determine what condition the roads are actually in, and what kind of maintenance is truly required.

The only way we can monitor all these different aspects that create varying road conditions is to fill all the gaps between RWIS stations and monitor varying parts of the road. Since we already determined this isn’t exactly feasible with traditional RWIS due to the initial investment and space required, how can we improve the accuracy of road weather monitoring to create a smart city transportation solution?

Our Director of Sales and Marketing, Mike Burton, met with Marvin Polis of the No Harm Health and Safety Podcast to further discuss factors that impact road conditions and why Smart Cities may want to consider densifying their RWIS network.

The Smart City Solution
The ideal solution for smart cities is something flexible, compact and affordable.

If an RWIS station could be condensed into a smaller, more affordable solution that monitors key data, these “mini” stations could be used to fill the gaps between larger, more robust RWIS stations. This process is referred to as “densification”. If we densify the RWIS network, we can expect higher accuracy road weather data.

Higher accuracy in your data means that road maintenance resources can be used more efficiently. This could lead to a reduction in unnecessary road salting in winter months, which has harsh environmental impacts. It could also lead to reduced overtime for road maintenance crews as road conditions can be predicted with high accuracy, remotely.

That’s the goal with WeatherBrain. Our road weather application can stand on its own as an affordable system to monitor road conditions. It also works as a flexible addition to a traditional RWIS network, allowing for an increase in data collection points (densification of data!).

We’re dedicated to improving road weather monitoring and forecasting and making the road weather application available to anyone – from major cities working to densify their network, to smaller municipalities who may need a more affordable and compact solution to keep their roads safe.

To see how WeatherBrain can work in your city, watch our RWIS video here: http://weatherbrain.com/smart-city/