by April Shepherd, Journalist, Infrastructure magazine

Main Roads delivered Western Australia’s first smart freeway in 2020, designing a journey that reduces congestion and improves safety for drivers. It is located on the northern part of the Kwinana Freeway, running northbound from Roe Highway to the Narrows bridge. Now, Main Roads has ambitious plans to transform the Mitchell Freeway southbound with the same technology by 2023. Here are the lessons it learnt from the first project, the results seen so far, and plans for future implementation.

The Smart Freeway Kwinana Northbound (SFKN) project is a state-first in Perth. Having been open for one year, the freeway is currently shaving off an average of five minutes travel time for commuters, and accommodates an average 13 per cent traffic increase across the Narrows Bridge during morning peak periods.

Main Roads spokesman, Dean Roberts, said, “The Smart Freeway has continued to deliver on its promise to provide more reliable journeys, a safer driving experience and reduced travel times.”

The Smart Freeway construction included the installation of traffic signals at five northbound on-ramps, converting an emergency lane into an additional traffic lane (from Canning Highway to the Narrows), installing electric message boards, coordinated ramp signals, overhead electronic signs, and training Main Roads staff to direct traffic.

The next smart freeway project in Western Australia is already underway, with Main Roads beginning works in June 2021 to convert part of the southbound Mitchell Freeway into the SFKN’s successor.

The southbound Mitchell Freeway services 180,000 motorists daily, and this 36km stretch of the Mitchell will include similar smart technology features to its Kwinana Freeway counterpart, with works already beginning on the Hester Avenue to Warwick Road sector.

The Smart Freeway Mitchell Southbound (SFMS) project will feature 16 entry ramps with Coordinated Ramp Signals (CRS) along its length.

Overhead gantry mounted electronic signs, which will be able to display speed reductions and lane closures, while informing motorists of changed conditions ahead, will be part of the SFMS closer to Perth’s CBD.

How does the technology work?

The Smart Freeways’ use of ITS, applies modern technology and communications to monitor traffic conditions and adjust contributing factors accordingly.

Road sensors installed on the Freeway and on-ramps inform ramp signals to make merging safer, whilst gathering and feeding information to a state-of-the-art Road Network Operations Centre (RNOC), so staff can alter speed limits and manage traffic flows in times of congestion, and open and close lanes in the event of an incident.

The Smart Freeways are monitored 24/7 by CCTV and managed by RNOC, which provides data collected from the in-road technologies to skilled operators.

These operators manage traffic flows and radars to immediately alert them when a vehicle is stopped in an emergency bay or on the freeway itself. This allows Main Roadsstaff to protect stranded vehicles on the road, manage traffic flows around the incident and send help to drivers.

Busting congestion

Traditional forms of easing congestion are not always feasible, which is why Smart Freeway technology is crucial to growing cities as it allows new ways of dealing with traffic issues resulting from population growth.

The Kwinana Freeway Northbound was plagued with congestion before the smart technology was installed, especially at the point of the Canning Highway northbound on-ramp.

To ease this, the emergency lane running from Canning Highway to the Narrows Bridge was converted to a full time traffic lane, removing the need to immediately merge into freeway traffic.

At five other on-ramps, traffic signals that act similar to traffic lights were installed, allowing one car per lane at a time to join the freeway, preventing stop-start merging.

“Servicing a greater volume of traffic with improved travel times, this section of the Kwinana Freeway is now more productive and efficient than ever before,” Mr Roberts said.

Testing the technology and building trust

As this project was a state first, the SFKN was a new experience for locals, which added an extra element to the construction – building the communities trust.

Mr Roberts said that testing of the technologies is a critical part of the delivery of these ITS projects. “We are asking drivers to trust and follow the system to allow for better traffic outcomes and the safety and well-being of those who use our freeways.

They need to know that the technologies work to build that trust,” Mr Roberts said. Mr Roberts said that some challenges arose during the construction of Kwinana, one of which was understanding the accessibility and condition of existing communication infrastructure in the project footprint, prior to project commencement.

The project was also undertaken during COVID-19 restrictions which created another obstacle to overcome. “Training the users of the technology during COVID restrictions required new and flexible approaches, including creating a training simulator,” Mr Roberts said.

“A successful driver education campaign was launched with the project.” As with all new technology, delivering the information in an easy and accessible way was an integral part of the project’s success.

Improved incident response increasing safety

Reducing congestion and monitoring traffic in real time leads to direct improvements in safety, with the SFKN, and the SFMS both featuring emergency stopping bays.

The bays are fitted with traffic sensors and all weather thermal imaging cameras that are monitored by RNOC operators. There are also dedicated Incident Response Service teams available at all times to respond as needed.

The technology also enables motorists to know which lane is closing or which lane to merge to, improving driver safety. The ITS is also able to reduce speed limits when an incident occurs or during busy periods to ensure congestion doesn’t start forming.

Benefiting the local community

Main Roads completed the Kwinana Freeway in 2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic had begun, leaving the experts delegated to work on the project homebound, and requiring local contractors to step up to the challenge.

Mr Roberts said, “In addition, the ITS used on our Smart Freeway required technologies and equipment that were not readily available in the state.”

COVID-19’s impact on the project had a silver lining for local contractors as the Kwinana project created hundreds of local jobs, with COVID-19 affecting out of state contractors who were destined to work on the project.

The new Mitchell Freeway project is expected to provide similar opportunities to the State’s workforce. “During construction, the SFKN project supported 245 jobs, and it is expected that the SFMS project will also support up to 500 jobs during construction,” Mr Roberts said.

“COVID-19 complicated the build during 2020, and instead of consultants and technicians coming to Perth from overseas or at times from over east, local technicians and companies had to step up, educate themselves and work remotely with the experts that could no longer get to WA.

“This knowledge transfer and experience gained by WA-based providers will assist with the delivery of future Smart Freeways.”

The Smart Freeways has not just improved the quality of life for busy Western Australian drivers, cutting congestion and allowing for more home-time for drivers, but has created, and will continue to create, hundreds of jobs for locals – in a time when steady employment is more important than ever.

Benefits of the SFKN become more apparent as it settles into the Perth landscape. The project has been hailed as a success, creating roads for Western Australians that get them home safely and smashing congestion easing goals to allow drivers more quality time at home – not stuck in the daily commute.

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