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Transit sign in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Transit sign in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)


Unlocking the gridlock Add to ...

In the meantime, people are increasingly upset about the situation. Forthcoming research by IBM Canada analyzed Twitter traffic, finding that the messages sent by Toronto drivers suggest they are the most unhappy in the country.

While transit is an overarching priority, experts say there are other things that can be done to help ease the flow on roads, and these efforts are essential to reduce environmental damage and overall frustration.

Fortunately, there are bright ideas being developed that keep cars moving, and drivers sane.


A good place to start looking for efficiencies is local on-ramps. According to Eric Miller, professor of engineering at the University of Toronto and former director of the Cities Centre, gains can be made by something as simple as delaying vehicles approaching highways. Each vehicle that enters the mass of faster-moving traffic can be disruptive, he explained, and speeds may be improved with a traffic light that allows only one or two cars at a time to merge.

“Dynamic speed control” is a more advanced technique that modifies limits based on traffic conditions and has been implemented in Spain, England and Germany. The idea is rooted in the way small delays ripple back through traffic to cause a large slowdown – for example, when people gawk at an accident The faster you’re going, the more jumpy you are on the brake, Prof. Miller explained, and the more likely you are to cause tiny delays that cascade through the system. With dynamic speed control, increasing congestion provokes a small reduction in the speed limit.

“If you bring the average speed down just a little bit, you’re reducing those stopping distances a bit and you’re keeping people more comfortable in the denser flow,” he noted. As a result, people are less likely to touch the brakes.


Want to manage vehicle flow in real time? Crowd-sourcing taps motorists for data and leaves them feeling more in control. Updates about traffic conditions would be provided by drivers through a cheap-to-develop app, either automatically or using a voice-to-text interface.

A professor in San Diego has created the California Traffic Report , allowing drivers to contribute to a picture of traffic patterns. And Alberto Leon-Garcia, professor of electrical and computer engineering at U of T, says the technology already exists for traffic lights to adapt to such a stream of incoming data. If enough people participate, the data could have a real benefit.

“What the system does is it has to translate that into a set of signals … that basically make the appropriate amount of capacity, travel capacity, available and hence meet the demand at that point in time,” the scientific director of the NSERC Strategic Network for Smart Applications on Virtual Infrastructures (SAVI) said after a briefing organized by IBM Canada, one of SAVI’s corporate supporters.

Although it would cost millions to set up such a traffic signal system across the entire city, Prof. Leon-Garcia noted that the Pan-Am games could offer a chance to test-drive the concept on a smaller scale.


Toronto’s traffic-light system is aging, according to Myles Currie, director of Toronto’s traffic management centre, with its most advanced type dating to the early 1990s.

This part of the current system, dubbed SCOOT, involves sensors in the road that monitor traffic flow approaching intersections and communicate with the control centre to adapt to conditions. The city is assessing the system to see if it needs to modified or replaced, and there are much fresher, innovative ideas out there, as scientists around the world race to develop smarter traffic signals.

One particularly futuristic-seeming concept, under development in Norway, analyzes pedestrian and cyclist behaviour and deduces whether they will be wanting to cross the road. Signals react accordingly. The MARLIN system Prof. Abdulhai has tested isn’t quite as advanced, but he says it could cut travel times on major corridors such as the Lakeshore by 25 per cent, and reduce emissions by 30 per cent.


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