Smart motorway systems deliver better travel reliability and real-time traveller information for road users.


How Australian motorways can be smarter if we unlock their value

Today’s transport corridors are like the neural networks in our bodies. When there’s a problem in our body, messages are sent to our brain to fix it. Our motorways, or freeways, can do the same thing, unlocking opportunities for shared possibilities to understand traffic flows and deploy responses to incidents.

Through improved technology and better understanding of the data that we collect on our transport networks, we can understand the specific functions of each corridor, determine performance measures that best reflect their use, and ensure our motorways flow as efficiently and seamlessly as possible.

Achieving this level of integration includes the use of digital traffic management systems, which are being installed on some of our motorways and freeways. These pre-emptive systems can improve safety, manage traffic flows, plan for disruption, and make roadway maintenance easier.

The digital data collected from traffic management systems allows motorway operators to better understand traffic movements along corridors, and determine performance measures for traffic operations and road asset maintenance. They deliver better travel reliability and real-time traveller information for road users, passenger and freight.

When these systems are installed in, and alongside, roads, they are termed ‘smart motorways’, or freeways depending on the location you are in, (sometimes referred to as managed motorways). They allow transport networks to operate smarter.

The benefits of smart motorways

Benefits of smart motorways include:

  • More streamlined traffic flow to ensure less stop-start traffic and sudden braking at congestion points by controlling and coordinating entry ramps along the route
  • Variable message signs and travel time information for road users, gained from the traffic management system in real-time
  • Improved speed compliance with overhead variable speed limit signs and CCTV coverage
  • Vehicle detection sensors inform speed limit adjustments in real-time to reduce congestion for road users
  • Reduces fuel use and lowers carbon emissions from vehicles with less stop-starts for road users
  • Bus lanes (taxis and motorcycles permitted) to increase transit system operating efficiency, directly benefiting bus passengers, encouraging travellers to shift from car to transit

Smart motorway systems deliver better travel reliability and real-time traveller information for road users. (Click image to enlarge)

A recent study in New Zealand found that active traffic management systems reduced congestion and incidents on motorways with:

  • 24 per cent reduction in crashes
  • 15 per cent improvement in travel speed
  • Overall harmonisation of speeds and 16 per cent increase in road capacity during congested periods
  • Up to 91 per cent improvement in journey time reliability during peak period travel times
  • Improved congestion recovery times on the mainline from incidents

Hard shoulder running divides opinion

The term ‘smart motorway’ has unfortunately received negative international press recently where the application of hard shoulder running has been added to a smart motorway. Hard shoulder running is when the emergency stopping lanes by the verge of a motorway are used to add a part-time lane to the motorway.

Creating this extra lane is not common in Australia because we don’t have available road width, but, is more common overseas. In recent years, serious traffic incidents have occurred in Europe on smart motorways with hard shoulder running. This has led to the broad term ‘smart motorways’ being tarnished.

A motorway doesn’t require the use of hard shoulder running to be identified as ‘smart’. It is the use of integrated digital traffic management systems that make a motorway smart.

It’s the use of integrated digital traffic management systems that make a motorway smart.

– Nial O’Brien, Roads Capability Leader, Aurecon

The planning of any smart motorway design should include the early involvement of project stakeholders, designers, constructors, operators, maintainers and users. This will determine the systems that will be most beneficial to these groups long into the future.

The beginnings of smart motorway design

Digital traffic management systems that include hard shoulder running first appeared in full specification in the UK on the M42 motorway in the West Midlands in 2006. From 2013, the current term ‘smart motorway’, has been used by Highways England to promote the technology to road users.

Road authorities around Australia have been using smart motorways technology since the late 1990s. It all started with a traffic management system installed in Brisbane, Queensland, featuring ramp metering, graphical displays of traffic conditions and automatic incident detectors. From there, the technology has matured and been introduced on more motorways around the country.

There is a lot more to a smart motorway than just hard shoulder running, and this aspect shouldn’t stop road infrastructure planners and funders in Australia and New Zealand from continuing to implement digital traffic management systems that benefit motorists.

Case studies of smart motorway systems

There are smart motorway systems installed across the world, hosting a range of new intelligent transport systems to control the flow of traffic for safer vehicle movements. Case studies include:

  • Kwinana Freeway Smart Freeway, Perth’s first smart freeway recently opened, reducing congestion and improving road safety while saving commuters up to 10 minutes in travel time during peak periods
  • SH20 Waterview Connection, Auckland: System designed to maximise traffic flow and manage demand along a specific transport corridor
  • West Gate Tunnel, Melbourne: Large sections of open road will incorporate smart motorway technology applications including ramp control signals, lane control and variable speed limit signs, incident detection, electronic message signs and vehicle detection
  • Monash Freeway Upgrade, Melbourne: Enables 16 to 19 per cent more traffic per lane to be sustained along the Monash Freeway
  • Pacific Motorway Upgrade M1/M3 Gateway Merge, Brisbane: Initial traffic analysis shows a 4 per cent increase in AM traffic throughput, 7 per cent improvement in travel speeds and 8 per cent improvement in productivity
  • M4 Smart Motorway, Sydney: 41 overhead gantries along the motorway keep drivers informed about traffic conditions, fed by data from traffic sensors set every 500 metres. Smart technology makes congestion flow smoother

M4 Motorway Sydney

M4 Motorway Sydney: 41 overhead gantries along the motorway keep drivers informed about traffic conditions and alerts

Technology solutions combined to magnify benefits

The ‘smart’ really comes into its own when the traffic systems talk to each other and automatically adjust to incidents and congestion. When solutions are combined, benefits are amplified.

As an example, Transport for NSW is building flexibility into the planning and design of its transport infrastructure projects for emerging technologies. This flexible modern approach is being incorporated into the M4 Smart Motorway with design standards to support digital connectivity and automation.

Congestion on a motorway is inevitable when traffic volumes exceed the capacity of the road. With digital traffic management systems, the onset of congestion can be delayed and reduced.

One such way is the implementation of predictive algorithms or machine learning which enables road operators to provide proactive management of motorways to maintain stable traffic conditions or minimise the occurrence of traffic flow breakdown during peak periods.

In the future, virtual vehicle management systems in the form of smartphone apps and in-vehicle systems could significantly enhance the movement of vehicles by using data and information from the smart motorway system. For example, a motorist might be able to receive a graphical interface, real-time audio alert detailing the location and type of incident ahead, plus the expected travel delay.

The shift in thinking

In Australia and New Zealand, there is a combination of mega projects, consideration of how existing infrastructure can be optimised and further developed, and there are opportunities to make a change through new greenfield sites. Today, there is also an increasing reliance on new technologies to optimise the performance of existing motorways.

We expect to see more of these technologies installed in future years, given the benefits of the technology, and the fact that governments have finite budgets for new infrastructure construction. The technology is getting to the point where it is making a serious difference in tackling the mega transport challenges facing our cities.

There are significant environmental and economic benefits to optimising existing infrastructure. Cost is the first. Funding is required to invest in smart motorway applications and retrofit to motorways that are already built, however, the cost will never surpass the capital expenditure required for a new motorway.

In this age of conservation and environmental management, the inbuilt sustainability of optimising an existing road is being developed and extended to produce a variety of environmentally sustainable options. There is also a range of successful examples that address the use of sustainable or recycled materials for road lighting, digital traffic management and signals.

Working harder and smarter

Our transport infrastructure needs to work harder than ever before. Population growth, as well as changing travel habits, is increasing the demand for urban public transport.

Smart motorways can lift economic efficiency by providing cities with the opportunity to modernise transport infrastructure. This transport technology also improves our quality of life through safer roads, making travel less stressful, reducing congestion and creating more reliable travel times. Less congestion on motorways equates to lower carbon emissions into the environment – if it doesn’t induce more traffic.

In addition, commuters with a reduced commute may have more time to pursue their hobbies or spend time with family. Let’s spur change and unlock value by reimagining the management and operation of our motorways for future generations.

neural road networks

Integrating design and construction works to keep road assets healthy

Our transport corridors are like the neural networks in our bodies. When there’s a problem, our body will send messages to our brain to fix the issue. Our road systems can do the same.

Through improved technology and better understanding of the data that we collect on our transport networks, we can plan sustainable outcomes for our roads that allow our networks to operate smarter.

Learn more ›

About the Author

Mark Henaway, Associate ITS and Traffic Control Systems. With more than 30 years of engineering experience, Mark has worked on smart motorways, intelligent transport systems (ITS) and traffic system projects in Australia and the Middle East.

His interests in the field extend to the future of autonomous transport, and the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning in the transport industry.

Nial O’Brien, Roads Capability leader. With over 20 years of experience, Nial is responsible for roads and highways services at Aurecon. He incorporates digital solutions and new technologies to enable the transport industry to be at the forefront of delivering better and smarter cities where people can flourish.

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