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Something always goes wrong on our roads. The Traffic Management Centre’s job is to keep them clear. Oliver Moore looks at how Toronto tackles a problem the mayor has called a priority – and one that shows no signs of slowing

The traffic nerve centre of Toronto is a surprisingly low-key place.

As drivers wrestle with congestion on roads across Toronto, staff at the city’s Traffic Management Centre swing into action when anything goes wrong. Far from the public gaze, they dispatch response teams, warn drivers and, in some cases, fiddle with traffic signals to manage the flow better.

This real-time effort to monitor and relieve Toronto’s increasingly clogged streets is run by a small team in a nondescript Don Mills office building. The atmosphere stands in stark contrast to the chaos they watch over every day. There’s a quiet competence – a visitor might be aware of a brewing incident only if he happens to spot something on the wall of video screens – as the people mix technology and gut instinct to troubleshoot traffic jams.

“We used to have a clear definition of the morning and afternoon [rush hour],” said Linda Lee, a supervisor and senior engineer of intelligent transportation systems operations at the facility. “Some places are so busy that by the time the police get [to a blockage] the person’s gone. But someone else is there.”

Read more: Meet Linda Lee, one of the engineers who helps manage Toronto’s traffic

Even on the best of days, driving in rush hour can tax one’s patience. And it doesn’t take much to turn the situation pear-shaped.

Around 8:45 on a recent Wednesday morning, one particular camera feed was showing a small incident closing a southbound lane of the Don Valley Parkway around York Mills. The result? Stop-and-go traffic on the key route into the city.

Congestion and transit were identified during the campaign as top-of-mind issues for voters, and Mayor John Tory clearly sees car traffic as a political winner. He cites the economic impact of congestion to justify huge costs to speed up repairs to the Gardiner Expressway. While in office, he has made very public moves to show he is helping drivers, including new police zeal about towing vehicles that block main streets during rush hour.

A rare chance to spend hours observing the traffic centre during the early morning rush lays bare the difficulty of tackling congestion. Driver psychology is a complex thing, and roads close to capacity make it an inevitability that something will go wrong somewhere. The crew’s video screens feed information from around the city, offering a bird’s eye view of parts of Toronto. But it’s hard not to get the sense they’re forced to work with one hand tied behind their back. Limited numbers of cameras and shortages of information can leave the crew flying blind about the effects of their actions.

With the growing population putting strain on the city’s roads, any problem can send the commute downhill fast. Even a simple fender-bender can tie up traffic and spill vehicles onto nearby roads as drivers try to find a better route.

“The best thing we can do is get the incident cleared as soon as possible,” said Myles Currie, director of the traffic facility.

Once an incident is identified, it is declared and a series of measures can be employed. Staff and the public get notified. Notice goes to the police, who may call fire or ambulance services. A “crash truck” – the sort of city vehicle one sees with a flashing arrow on the back, directing traffic around an incident – may be sent out. Those electronic signs that alert drivers to problems ahead can be adjusted.

The cycle of traffic signals nearby might be changed if it will help. But that’s not as easy as flipping a switch and giving all green signals to everyone going in a particular direction. There’s a complex mix of people using the roads, and too much priority can’t be given to any one group.

“It’s a balancing act,” Ms. Lee said. “We’ve got pedestrians, vehicles, transit, bicycles. Everyone wants a chunk of the time.”

The people monitoring these dozens of video screens are conditioned to watch for flashing lights, the best indication something has gone wrong. Other times they rely on gut instinct. Without cameras on many roads, an incident sometimes has to be intuited just by looking at the traffic flow nearby. Other problems are caught by the cameras, with major incidents being put up on the bigger screens that dominate the video wall.

It’s a small crew, especially given the scale of the traffic they’re handling. There are two “operators” watching the monitors for problems and two “dispatchers” who react as incidents crop up. These are all employees of Fortran Traffic Systems Ltd., a traffic-solutions company. Also on the floor is a city employee who can adjust traffic-signal timing to better manage the flow of vehicles.

“Not a lot of people realize that behind [traffic] there’s a group of people trying to manage it,” said Rocelle De La Vega, a Fortran supervisor.

The worst incident recently was in October, when a gravel truck spilled its load on the DVP, closing the southbound lanes for eight hours. But many problems will be cleared in minutes.

The process can be complicated by a lack of information, though. Of the 90 cameras being fed into the facility, three-quarters are mounted along the highways or Lake Shore Boulevard; staff have less knowledge of what is happening on many of the city’s roadways.

“It’s difficult when we don’t have eyes on the street,” Ms. Lee said.

That issue should be reduced with this year’s planned addition of another 80 cameras. Half of these are slated to go on the road network identified for the Pan American Games, and the other half on arterial streets parallel to expressways. This is important because these are the bail-out roads for drivers frustrated with congestion on the major routes. An incident on the DVP tends to push traffic onto Victoria Park Avenue or Don Mills Road, for example.

Another wrinkle is that driver psychology is not always predictable. Some people will move from lane to lane or road to road in an attempt to reduce their commute. But others will stick with their usual route, no matter how bad it gets. Even something as simple as posting a warning about problems ahead can pose unintended consequences. Make the warning too dire and people may change course en masse, creating problems elsewhere.

Looming in the background of all these attempts to limit congestion is the reality that traffic is a complicated beast. Imagine the difficulty managing congestion when so-called “phantom traffic jams” can erupt for no apparent reason.

“One day I come in and the Gardiner’s really congested,” Mr. Currie remembered. “And nothing’s going on. No collisions.”

The view from here

Staff at Toronto’s Traffic Management Centre swear that they don’t compile blooper videos of highway high jinks. But they see plenty of ways it can go wrong on the roads. Lessons learned:

1. You have to change your approach when winter hits. “On the first snowfall, people forget how to drive,” said Linda Lee, a senior engineer and supervisor at the facility. “It’s like they want to drive the same as always.”

2. Stay alert. Rocelle De La Vega, who supervises third-party staff at the facility, said a night operator saw a vehicle drifting, its driver was probably asleep. Police were alerted but didn’t arrive before the crash.

3. If you take the wrong exit from the highway, keep going to a safe place to turn around. “You see a driver backing up on the ramp and you shake your head,” Ms. De La Vega said.

4. Watch out for the fauna. The operators will sometimes spot deer and other (smaller) wildlife moving across the highway. “Imagine being stuck in traffic due to an animal crossing,” Ms. Lee said. “Something we don’t usually see in urban areas.”

5. It’s possible to lose a porta-potty off your vehicle while driving on the highway, and just keep going. True story.