There are 15 cars backed up on 6th Avenue because a school bus is idling in front of Radio City Music Hall. A blown manhole cover on 42nd Street is causing commuter temperatures to rise near Times Square.
All of this is being watched with cool detachment inside the New York City Department of Transport traffic command centre in Queens, where a bank of digital television screens shows non-stop action from a group of midtown intersections between 3rd and 6th avenues and from 42nd to 57th street.
The live, streaming footage of bumper-to-bumper cabs and stylish, jaywalking pedestrians is part of an attempt to deal with congestion in real time, employing wireless sensors and extensive camera coverage.
“We’re using the improvements in technology to be able to adjust to the traffic issues we have,” said John Tipaldo, New York’s director of systems engineering management. “Is it going to make traffic go away? No, it’s not. But if there are incidents that occur, we’ll be able to address them faster and more intelligently than we have in the past.”
His team is just one month into a six-month pilot project in which a network of traffic sensors collect and relay data within a 110-square-block section of the city. From this command centre in Queens, three calm, silent men absorb the information and remotely adjust a network of stoplights to help keep traffic moving smoothly.
The $1.6-million system, paid for by the city with a $600,000 contribution from Washington, will be expanded to other parts of the five boroughs if it’s deemed helpful, and is widely considered one of the most high-tech traffic-management programs in the world.
“It’s the beginning of what we can do for the entire city,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said upon its introduction last month.
The idea behind the new system is agility. In most big cities, such as Toronto, traffic lights are operated on a fixed time cycle, changing in a specific order regardless of conditions. Other, semi-actuated signals change according to the arrival of vehicles or pedestrians, using embedded sensors, but react the same whether one car is waiting or 80.
The New York trial is experimenting with a more nimble, case-by-case form of traffic-light management.
In the trial area, wireless sensors above ground monitor specific traffic patterns at each intersection. They can also pick up information from the E-ZPasses many New York drivers use to expedite their passage along toll roads.
With these tools, Mr. Tipaldo’s engineers are fed encrypted information about downtown travel times – how long a vehicle is taking to get from 42nd to 52nd, for example – as well as how many cars are sitting at a given light.
But his team does not just guess at what is causing the backups they see; they also use an extensive system of surveillance cameras to establish the root of congestion – an accident, say, or a fallen cyclist. Depending on what’s happening, they will change the lights in an attempt to funnel traffic to another street.
“Every incident is different and every response is different,” Mr. Tipaldo said. “What we do is based on what we find.”
And it’s not always about making a red turn green. If they see a problem on a certain block, for example, they will reroute nearby cars. An accident on the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, however, may lead them to notify the media instead, warning drivers to pick another route.
Mr. Tipaldo said other changes to city transportation could come from the data the project is gathering. If the team members notice an idling delivery truck regularly holding up traffic on Broadway, for example, they may consider changing the legal unloading times for the neighbourhood.
To facilitate this dexterous approach to downtown congestion, the city has already made 3,600 traffic lights wireless, so they can be controlled from anywhere, and are in the process of converting all 12,400.
The transportation department can also communicate securely via its own designated channel on the city’s wireless network, NYCWiN, which was implemented after the terrorist attacks of 2001 for first responders and other city departments to co-ordinate in emergencies.
The main control facility is manned 24 hours a day, in co-ordination with city and state police, and city officials from as far afield as Japan, Poland and China have visited the centre to learn about the trial program.
As part of Mr. Bloomberg’s commitment to collecting urban data, the city is tracking every piece of information gathered throughout the trial and making it public so amateur transportation experts can try their hand at coming up with traffic solutions.
By analyzing what works and what doesn’t, Mr. Tipaldo said, they hope to find at least small ways to improve how the city deals with congestion.
“Maybe the predetermined approach is not necessarily the best approach,” he said. “There’s a lot of competing needs in the city, and we’re just trying to keep things flowing.”