Traffic Management in the Fast Lane: Cities capture data on roads and intersections

Published On
Oct 15, 2021

Technological sensors on roads and intersections gather more data and enable more intelligent responses to conditions than ever before. Increased numbers of motorists, aging infrastructure and the growing digitalization is driving the installation of more intelligence on our roads. The Federal Highway Administration is exploring artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine-learning technology to combat wear and tear on bridges and highways while moving traffic more efficiently with fewer accidents. In the meantime, technology is bringing intelligence to traffic signals, toll collection and high-occupancy vehicle lanes. For electrical contractors, this may lead to opportunities as upgrade and infrastructure projects arise.

According to Guidehouse Insights, Boulder, Colo., the advanced traffic management market is expected to achieve gradual but accelerating growth over the next 10 years. Guidehouse estimates that the global market for advanced traffic management was worth more than $1.1 billion in 2019. The report projected annual revenue for the technology to reach about $3.8 billion by 2028. Growth results as cities prioritize reducing traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, improving safety and livability for motorists and pedestrians and integrating advanced traffic management systems with other initiatives such as smart street lighting. Adoption is also expected to be enhanced by greater use of connected vehicles.

The technology is already providing some benefits, and some cities have reported substantial reductions in travel and wait times at intersections. Dallas partnered with telecommunications company Ericsson, Plano, Texas, to upgrade the city’s traffic management system. Traffic managers can adjust signals across hundreds of intersections in real-time, and the system will be connected to local transit systems. The city anticipates the system will enable a bus rapid transit route to have priority over vehicle traffic through targeted green light timing.

Most of these management systems run on fiber communications, and cities are updating fiber infrastructure to enable better traffic management, while preparing for connected and autonomous vehicles.

The 20th-century paradigm—signal cabinets with unconnected hardware that did one thing (manage timed signals)—is being replaced by modern, connected digital hardware that can be updated through software, said Kurtis McBride, CEO at Miovision in Kitchener, Ontario.

Cities are already capturing plenty of data about intersections, but a lot of it is trapped in an analog circuit in the box.

“The challenge for traffic managers and cities is how to easily access data that’s already there,” McBride said.

Going forward, “the whole world of traffic management is going to change,” he said.

That means leveraging wireless networks and low-power sensors, with sensor information streaming to a server in real time.

Miovision’s technology can be built directly into existing traffic cabinets. It interfaces with the traffic controller and uses cellular connectivity to talk to the cloud, McBride said. Cameras at that point can turn video into traffic data. A common use case is video detection: is a car waiting to turn left? What kinds of congestion might result, and when? That insight leads to light improvements, which could mean more “green time” or improved safety through other means.

Miovision already has about 300 city and state government customers across the United States and Canada. About 20% use the system to manage traffic and generate insights. Even where it’s deployed for operations only, the data comes back to the cloud in real time, so users can add functionality to the system over time.

Whatever you measure, you can improve, McBride said. He has seen the technology take cities from responding only to citizen complaints as their primary source of data to real-time information fed to the cloud 10 times per second. This means solutions can be faster and better targeted.

Detroit is an example with almost 100% of signalized intersections leveraging the Miovision system. The technology helps the city detect operational issues and then measure traffic queue lines. The system can now evaluate the movement of pedestrians and automate traffic light changes during a Detroit Lions home football game.

McBride likes to call this the “smartphone at the intersection.” His analogy is that smartphones have eliminated the need for various gadgets, including car GPS devices and even cameras. He expects traffic light technology to do the same for today’s intersections. The company works with local contractors to install and maintain the systems.

Installers have taught the company some of the physical demands on the hardware and how to work around demands, such as protection from lightning strikes.

“Out of the gate, we wouldn’t be where we are without people like that to give us input,” McBride said.

For electrical contractors, one source of revenue can be addressing traffic management systems’ upgrades and services.

“We absolutely think there’s a role for those folks,” McBride said.

Cities today are looking for traffic solutions focused on efficiency, safety and environmental impact, agreed Michael Gaertner, vice president of products and systems for Yunex Traffic, a Siemens business. Many cities have outdated technologies and are looking to upgrade their networks to include increased functionalities while collecting and quickly analyzing traffic data from multiple modes of transportation.

This, Gaertner said, will help “to make better and more efficient decisions that directly affect efficiency and safety, while at the same time reducing CO2 emissions from road traffic.”

Florida’s Miami-Dade County boasts a new state-of-the-art advanced traffic management system (ATMS) that includes the replacement of 2,900 traffic signal controllers with new central software and improved vehicle detection. The enhanced system will reduce delays, improve all modes of transportation and better react to unforeseen events while recovering quicker from unavoidable disruptions.

The county will be able to integrate additional resources as needed to improve mobility for all modes of transportation, Gaertner said.

For example, it has begun to implement SiBike technology, which allows cyclists to connect to the network to ensure a safer, more efficient interaction with cars. The county has also connected its rail crossings to the ATMS.

The internet of things (IoT), A.I. and data-driven technologies have only just begun to change mobility organizations. McBride expects cities to become more connected as these technologies evolve.

Prediction and forecasting continue to be a driving force in the industry “and with technologies like the digital twin, we will better be able to see the impacts and plan better for incidents and events,” he said. “We expect the long-standing trends of decarbonization and automation to drive more transformative changes in the coming years.”

Services for sale

Contractors should look to Availability- as-a-Service (performance-based contracts), platform subscriptions for connected devices, public-private partnerships and Mobility-as-a-Service (IoT platforms) as ways to overcome some of the biggest challenges, Gaertner said.

Ultimately, it’s about helping traffic managers do their job. Congestion management platforms need to help traffic managers optimize capacity, said Kristen Bridgers, San Diego-based Cubic Transportation Systems’ leader, product marketing.

Featuring multimodal integration, complex pricing models and a single user account for managing all transportation needs, she said, “we provide cities with the necessary back office to keep up with today’s infrastructure demands, while helping them better prepare for the future.”

Cubic’s product solutions include ATMS, Gridsmart for pedestrians and cyclists’ safety and SynchroGreen software to simulate and optimize traffic.

Solutions can’t be as effective when provided in proprietary, or closed, versions.

“Historically, systems have been closed, meaning they are not necessarily agnostic. Now, all of our solutions are agnostic and operate on an open [application programming interface],” Bridgers said.

There are platforms on the horizon that will make cities and public and private transit systems more connected than ever before, from a consumer and operator perspective, she said.

To serve this need for more technological solutions, she said, “electrical contractors must focus on improved performance, improved bottom line, pleasing end-users and increased productivity among workers through connected working tech platforms that control transportation networks.”

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