October 11, 2016

Buildling smarter streets

Sustainable Cities -Traffic is a common denominator of city life. Whether you walk, bike, drive, or take public transit, everyone knows the frustration of waiting for lights to change – only to inch forward in a line of cars. The solution to this universal problem isn’t building more roads with more lanes -- that’s been proven. Instead, what cities need to do is make better use of the infrastructure they already have; our city streets need to get smarter.

Creating smarter streets starts with better intersection control. Odds are good that in your city, street light timing is only changed once every few years and is done by a city worker going to a traffic cabinet to adjust timing. In our current age of “connected everything,” this is not just unacceptable, it’s a bit sad, too.

Connecting these cabinets to the Internet lets traffic engineers monitor the flow of traffic from one central location. Take the power of an Internet connection one step further, and these engineers can program traffic light cycles in real-time, extending a green to clear a backup or perhaps turning a left-only signal off sooner to get traffic flowing in the opposing lane.

The end result of smarter intersections is not just a less stressful commute. Connecting a city’s traffic network and giving traffic engineers the power to continually optimize will reveal new efficiencies for transportation, meaning a more diverse mixture of mobility options available to city-dwellers.

Consider the example of the urban bus route. Today, you pay perhaps $3 a day to sit on a bus in traffic. Is it more efficient to carry 50 people in one vehicle than in 50 vehicles? Yes. But is the current practice sustainable? No. In many cities, buses are underutilized and deal with the same traffic as everyone else on the road.

Many cities have added Bus Rapid Transit lanes – BRT – to their city cores to address this problem. BRT lanes allow buses to travel more freely through traffic, reducing time spent on the road and hopefully the ratio of particulate emissions to passengers. But buses in BRT lanes can still get stuck at red lights. What good is a dedicated lane if you’re still hitting every red?

Smarter streets could make BRT much more effective by connecting sensors at intersections to buses. As a bus begins its route, the connected traffic network can monitor its progress, and change the timing of traffic lights to give the bus as many greens as possible.

Mixed mobility doesn’t end with buses, either. Optimized traffic makes streets more pedestrian-friendly and makes it easier for bicyclists to commute safely and quickly. These are the aftereffects of smoother traffic flows through the city: more people choosing sustainable and efficient ways to get from A-to-B, which means even less traffic congestion and cleaner air.

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