By Kevin Wilcox
Better 3-D visualization software is changing how transportation projects are presented to the public.
In the 3-D presentation, viewers drive under the animal overcrossing, viewing it from a motorist’s perspective. They then “visit” the crossing itself and see it from a mule deer’s point of view. Courtesy of Oregon Department of Transportation
May 16, 2017—For many roadway engineers, a public meeting can be one of the most stressful situations they face in their careers. Carefully prepared maps and renderings that seem to present the project as clearly as possible can still lead to confusion, disagreements, and confrontation.
However, as 3-D rendering and animation software becomes more sophisticated and less expensive, departments of transportation are finding that they have a powerful new tool to deploy when educating other engineers, public leaders, and stakeholders on the details of complex projects.
"Having some sort of [simulation] of what something is going to look, taste, and feel like in the future is a great way to tell folks, 'We don't think this is what it's going to be like, we know [this is] what it's going to be like,'" says Della Mosier, P.E., the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) roadway manager for Region 4, which covers a swath of the state from the California border to the Columbia River, including the highest part of the Cascade Range and the Oregon high desert.
Mosier has been a proponent of 3-D for years, having served as the chair of ODOT's 3-D roadway design committee. She also helped produce the department's 3-D roadway design program, which requires contractors to develop a "complete and accurate digital design package prior to construction," she says.
"So, I've come from that perspective, always thinking of 3-D design," Mosier explains. "I think as engineers, we draw things up in 2-D and we can see them in 3-D. But the folks we really need to communicate with don't have that perspective."
A current ODOT project provides a good example. The department is planning a series of improvements to a 6 mi stretch of U.S. Route 97 through the high desert in the Deschutes National Forest south of Bend. This section of Route 97 has average daily traffic of 15,000 vehicles, 5,000 of them heavy trucks. Plans call for creating a divided highway, improving the safety of an intersection with a local road, Vandevert Road, and creating several wildlife crossings. "We are addressing safety and mobility for the traveling public, as well as opportunities to improve wildlife migration corridors," Mosier says. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has provided maps of migration corridors to ODOT showing that mule deer and elk cross the Route 97 corridor when moving between eastern Oregon in winter and areas near the Cascade Range in summer.
The undercrossing alternative is nearly invisible from a motorist’s perspective and is more common in Oregon. Courtesy of Oregon Department of Transportation
Because many drivers in this portion of Oregon are unfamiliar with wildlife overcrossings and the intersection improvements proposed for Vandevert Road, ODOT saw the project as a perfect opportunity to employ the latest 3-D animation technology to educate the public about the proposed changes. So in February it conducted a public outreach effort that included open houses, stakeholder presentations, media outreach, and mailers to people with addresses near the project. Moreover, the department staged an online open housethat drew 1,000 visitors and elicited 150 public comments.
This online open house includes detailed 3-D animationsusing software from RDV Systems, of Manchester, New Hampshire. The firm's software creates impressive fly-over and drive-through presentations. ODOT's animations are narrated to explain the proposed changes to the route. The "camera" pans around the landscape to show all the perspectives that a motorist might have traveling past one of the animal crossing designs or traveling through the intersection.
The online open housepresentations were also part of the physical open houses, Mosier says. The videos were playing in the background, 3-D visualizations were displayed on posters, and ODOT set up computer stations so that attendees could visit the full website.
"We try to use all of the tools we have available," Mosier says. "Having face-to-face conversations with folks is invaluable, and I don't think that will ever go away. But the documents that we are bringing to those face-to-face meetings—having 3-D animation—is a lot more efficient than trying to explain 2-D drawings."
Mosier says the use of 3-D animations helps the public grasp the concepts more quickly. It also establishes trust between the public and the engineers and moves the process into an informed discussion in a collaborative spirit. "Energetically, conversations get to be more fun," she says.
This is one of the first times ODOT has used 3-D animations to illustrate a project, and it won't be the last. Other departments of transportation are using them as well. And as the technology improves, the animations will contain an even higher level of detail, and they will become easier to create. This will rapidly change how transportation projects are envisioned and sold to stakeholders. It can also change how projects are designed.
"From what I've seen, there are engineers out there who have excellent and innovative ideas that are never brought to fruition because no one else understands them. These 3-D technologies are the way out of that problem," says Mosier. "As a designer, when you are trying something new, it helps you and your stakeholders go from questioning the designs to collaborating on how to improve the designs—ultimately kicking open the door to exciting innovations."