‘Smart’ traffic technology may ease congested London roads

It’s about time London embraced technology to ease its traffic woes — but it won’t be a magic solution.

That’s the message from transportation experts as the city looks to upgrade its traffic-signal network to a “smart” system using real-time tracking to change the lights - writes lfpress.com.

Londoners have been asking for it for decades. Big cities such as Toronto have been using the technology for at least 25 years.

But one urban-planning specialist warns the change won’t be a silver bullet for London’s clogged roadways.

“Intelligent-transportation systems are one tool in the toolbox for addressing traffic and congestion,” said Matti Siemiatycki, a University of Toronto geography professor who specializes in urban planning.

“But it’s not going to be a game changer . . . you can’t build your way out of congestion.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he said, noting traffic volume is one sign of a thriving city.

The solution lies in long-term planning decisions, such as those that get people out of their cars, Siemiatycki thinks. That’s another reason London is investigating a smart system: It’s key to making the city’s bus rapid transit dreams a reality.

Right now, lights on major roads flip from green to yellow to red on a timed cycle based on the intersection and time of day.

But that system is practically archaic.

London city council will decide this week whether or not to dish out nearly $136,000 to a consulting firm to help get the ball rolling on a traffic signal update.

It’s called an intelligent transportation system (ITS) — a step above synchronized traffic lights — and something the city’s roads boss, Edward Soldo, said would “move our traffic system into the next century.”

There are three main pieces:

  • Giving traffic lights “eyes,” either through cameras or detectors, to see and respond to traffic as it happens.
  • A network that takes the information to a central spot.
  • The traffic-control centre, basically a high-tech hub where all the data can be crunched.

Mayor Matt Brown described the project as “music to Londoners’ ears” at a committee meeting last week. Simply put, smart traffic systems save people time.

Baher Abdulhai, a professor and director of the Toronto Intelligent Transportation Systems Centre, said it’s crucial for a community like London. “The importance of intelligent transportation systems and traffic management systems increase with the size of the city and the level of congestion,” he said, adding “it’s about time they take this step.”

Upgrading the lights usually runs $20,000 to $30,000 per intersection, Abdulhai said. The city has 396 signals, with another two or four added each year, according to a staff report heading to council. That works out to between $8 million and $12 million.

“That’s not a whole lot compared to what it achieves,” Abdulhai said. “ITS solutions are much cheaper compared to brute force road expansion.”

The city has earmarked $64 million for the project, including engineering, construction and land acquisition, the staff report says.

It also sets up the city to incorporate even more innovative technology, such as artificial intelligence — think traffic signals with “brains” so they can respond to volume on their own — down the road.

“The sky is the limit,” Abdulhai said. Siemiatycki said that even though the new technology won’t wipe out congestion, it can help make some room on the roads.

“London is a big city now, and it’s facing big-city challenges,” he said. “You’re going to have congestion, you’re going to have traffic.”

Read more news of London on our site.

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