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Transportation Planners Aided By GIS Research

Most people rely on paper maps to guide them to a destination, but some researchers use geographic information systems (GIS) tools to make maps to improve transportation. GIS is a computer system that assembles, stores, manipulates, and displays data identified according to their geographic locations. GIS technology can be used for scientific investigations, resource management, and development planning.

At ORNL's Center for Transportation Analysis (CTA) in the Energy Division, Bruce Peterson and Frank Southworth have developed a GIS-based research tool used by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), state DOTs, private companies, and universities. It is called the North American Intermodal Freight Network Model. ORNL researchers have used the model to estimate the annual ton-miles of freight on U.S. roads, waterways, and rail lines in support of the U.S. Census Bureau's 1997 Commodity Flow Survey.

For this project, Peterson developed algorithms that calculate the shortest route and the least costly combination of modes (truck, barge, rail car) for moving freight rapidly and economically from one zip code area to another in the United States. Some 5 million such routes were simulated in support of the 1997 Commodity Flow Survey.

"Separate truck, rail, and waterway networks have existed for a long time," Peterson says. "We have come up with a unified network that models the U.S. transportation infrastructure by including all freight-carrying modes."

"State departments of transportation could use the network to simulate the flow of traffic over their major highways, rail lines, and waterways," Southworth says. "These flow patterns might then be used to estimate the need for new investments in transportation infrastructure."

GIS map shows areas where truck traffic is particularly heavy
This GIS map shows areas of the United States where truck traffic is particularly heavy (denoted by thickness of colored lines).

S. M. Chin of CTA uses GIS tools to study the movement of freight between airports; truck and rail terminals; and sea, lake, and river ports. He identifies bottlenecks where freight changes hands from one mode of transportation to another, such as the traffic congestion around Los Angeles International Airport. Displays of data on GIS maps suggest where resources should be invested to reduce congestion and eliminate bottlenecks to expedite truck-air, truck-rail, truck-water, and rail-water transfers of freight.

Some of ORNL's GIS researchers may move to the GIS laboratory at the National Transportation Research Center. The director of the laboratory is Don Alvic of the University of Tennessee (UT), and the laboratory is staffed by UT researchers. One project under way there is to use data from county departments of transportation to determine the best places to locate proposed new roads. The UT researchers examine the characteristics of the current highway system, interchange accessibility, bridge weight limitations, and land-use considerations before recommending possible locations for new routes.

"Our GIS lab produces data similar to the Internet maps from search engines, but these maps are more complicated," Alvic says. "Our software will find the shortest, fastest route between two points. Military transportation planners, for example, may want the best highway route that allows them to avoid travel through some cities and over certain bridges. If they are shipping biological and chemical warfare materials for disposal, they may want to find a route that passes through areas of very low population, to minimize the chances of accidental exposures."

GIS studies by ORNL and UT researchers are helping to put East Tennessee on the transportation research map.

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ORNL's Center for Transportation Analysis
ORNL's Energy Division

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