At the helm of Toronto's Traffic Management Centre is Linda Lee, a Waterloo engineering grad who has been a supervisor since 2012. She oversees a crew of camera operators and dispatchers who monitor the city's highways and major intersections 24/7 – intervening to clear up snags when there are problems. Here, Ms. Lee describes what it's like to be in charge of it all.
How did you get involved in traffic management?
One of my terms [in co-op at the University of Waterloo in the 1990s] was in dealing with traffic signals in the city's traffic-signals section. When I graduated, I came on board.
How have traffic patterns changed in the time you've been doing this?
It used to be very directional. In the morning, you'd see traffic primarily southbound coming into the city. In the afternoon, you'd see everyone dispersing from the centre. Nowadays, there are businesses everywhere, and we've noticed traffic is busy everywhere.
Now that most people have traffic management devices on their phones and dashboards, are people making smarter choices?
I think they are. Everyone has a phone, so prior to going somewhere, they'll look at their trip and say, 'What is the best route?'
What do you do if there's a problem? Do you divert traffic, or force people to take different routes?
I wouldn't say "force." Our signs don't say to take a certain route, because we find that if you start to tell people to take certain routes, you'll see a mass exodus and then that route doesn't become the best route either.
We just give them the options, and let people decide themselves.
Do you ever feel like you're playing God?
People are always like, 'You've got all these toys to play with.' But to us, this is just what we do every day. We come in, an incident happens, we deal with it.
I think some people get the perception that we can influence things like in The Italian Job. People always say, 'How come you don't just divert people, turn on lights here and there?' That's not the case.
How does this job change the way you see the city?
When people get really aggravated when they're driving, I have less of that because I know what's happening. If I'm driving in the winter and stopped at a light, and let's say the light is cycling [the signal changes from the main street to a side street even if there aren't any cars] that frustrates a lot of people.
To me, I know the history. My first reaction is, 'Oh, let me see if there's a problem when I get back to the office.'
What about the cameras? Are you conscious of them when you're driving around?
Sometimes I'll be on the DVP and think, 'I wonder if they can see me?' One time, a supervisor was driving up the DVP and his car got a flat tire. He came in and said, 'Did you see me on the cameras?' We told him, 'We didn't know it was you. We saw there was someone stalled, and called the police.'
How closely can the cameras see into these cars? Do drivers need to be worried?
One thing we make sure of is that anyone who works in this room is very clear of the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
More specifically, when they're operating the cameras, they're not allowed to zoom in on people or buildings or anything that would violate anyone's privacy. The main focus is that we are trying to monitor traffic. That is our main goal.
This interview has been condensed and edited.