Traffic TechnologyNov 01, 2021 ● By Joshua Baethge
Keeping traffic moving in a bustling city is challenging, to say the least. But that’s exactly the task that the City of Frisco’s engineering department has undertaken for years. From public-private partnerships to utilizing the latest technology, city staff is constantly working to ensure that local commuters can remain on the go.
Those efforts start with the city’s traffic lights, many of which are “smart signals” that provide real-time information updates as well as historical data. This information is used in conjunction with data collected about traffic incidents. Crash times, first-responder arrival times and the amount of time it takes to clear accidents are all tracked and recorded by the city and used to help reduce traffic congestion and improve safety. This project has been ongoing since 2017, with a goal of minimizing congestion on local roadways as accident scenes are cleared, as well as to reduce the risk of secondary crashes that may result.
Also that year, Friso became the first city in Texas to deploy cutting-edge technology that allows traffic signals to communicate with vehicles on its roadways. Data from more than 100 traffic lights is shared with third-party data broker Traffic Technology Services (TTS). The information is processed and made usable to drivers of cars that have signed up for the Audi connect® service. Drivers can see a countdown clock in the dashboard area of their vehicle that shows how much time they have before a traffic signal changes.
Audi drivers are currently able to take advantage of the subscription feature, and many owners of new Audi vehicles receive the service free during an initial trial period. The program has expanded to other North Texas cities including Plano and Grapevine and, according to TTS, plans are also in the works to expand the program (hopefully next year) to include Mercedes-Benz.
Leading The Waze
Four years ago, Frisco partnered with popular GPS software app Waze to help area drivers and city officials better navigate and manage the roads through the Waze for Cities program (formerly called the Waze Connected Citizens Program).
Brian Moen, assistant director of transportation, says the program allows his team to monitor a digital dashboard that shows the real-time status of activities on the city’s roads.
Drivers who use the Waze app typically can see what traffic conditions are within a couple thousand feet of where they are situated. Meanwhile, the software allows city staff to have an eagle-eye view of everything that is going on related to traffic conditions. The system also keeps track of information so city staffers can evaluate what has happened on the roads historically.
For example, immediately following Frisco Freedom Fest this summer, Moen could see the map turn red as crowds that attended the event began to disperse. As the mass exodus continued, he observed what was happening at each traffic signal in the city and where traffic had begun to taper off.
The system also allows city staff to input data into Waze. “Let’s say there’s a crash at Legacy and Main,” he says. “It would be on the map and if you touch the crash symbol, you can see it was reported” by the City of Frisco. “It shows that the data comes from us and is verified.”
Such information can be added in real time by police officers who may be on the scene. When an accident scene is cleared,
officers can also immediately update the app.
The partnership also helps the city
navigate road closures. Moen cites a gas leak earlier this year near the intersection of FM 423 and Eldorado Parkway as a prime example. That information was fed to the city’s computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, which then helped determine the most efficient route for first responders to use.
Last year the city’s public works department also began utilizing Waze. Now, when street construction work or minor repairs are made, the app features up-to-date information. “It’s something that has evolved continuously over time,” he says. “We continue to find ways to use that data more ourselves.”
Looking Toward The Future
City officials are always on the lookout for technology that can improve traffic flow in Frisco by examining identified issues and determining how best to address them. At the end of the day, the overriding mission of traffic department staff is to ensure that good, efficient and safe mobility is provided for drivers.
Moen says that city staff is tasked with trying to keep Frisco in a position to continue growing, which means maintaining traffic systems that are as reliable and efficient as possible. Still, there is only so much that can be done. “Texas can’t build itself out of congestion,” he says. “No matter how much you put it in, it just keeps getting eaten up by demand.”
The challenge then becomes determining which projects to build. He says traffic planning staffers must constantly stay abreast of what is happening on the technology side to ensure they are focused on the right things. Traffic systems should be adaptable because change is almost certainly guaranteed. The pace of that change is increasing, it seems, meaning that decisionmakers must constantly question when or whether certain roads should be built.
Years’ worth of planning goes into major road construction projects before they are built. However, if certain projects aren’t built in a timely manner, cities run the risk of ending up behind the curve should expected transportation trends fail to materialize – and no one wants to sink millions of dollars into a project that is obsolete by the time it is completed.
“That’s been something in my career that’s becoming more and more of a challenge,” Moen says. “As a profession, we are beginning to ask ourselves if the traditional methods we did for transportation planning are really valid nowadays.”
In recent years, electric scooter companies have popped up in multiple cities. While some pilot programs have failed (including one in Frisco in 2018), many traffic experts believe this kind of “last-mile” technology will play a key role in future urban mobility as it allows people in dense areas to more easily traverse distances that would otherwise require a significant walk or short car trip.
on the horizon
New technology such as autonomous vehicles will likely change the game one day, although it is difficult to predict with certainty when – or whether – they will come into widespread use. Even helicopters could play a role in Frisco’s transportation future. In 2019, a helipad was built at Frisco Station as the first test site for Uber Elevate. The rideshare company hopes to one day make airborne ridesharing a viable option for people looking to get around the city. But there are no guarantees that will happen.
Frisco is working with a company called Etalyc as part of a pilot program that uses analytics to evaluate traffic-signal timing (the program is expected to wrap up in spring 2022). Meanwhile, video-analytic technology employing cameras mounted on traffic signals may work to identify potential traffic safety issues. Although the city maintains records of traffic accidents, such technology is designed to pinpoint close calls in regard to crashes as well as other red flags.
Traditional traffic monitoring relies heavily on detection systems that can mine data. In recent years, some vehicles have been equipped with onboard modems, as well as 4G and 5G systems. Automakers pull data from those vehicles, which one day may be available for cities to access. It would obviously come at a cost, but that price point could prove to be more economical than installing additional traditional traffic-monitoring devices.
Currently, top-end traffic signal technology can detect a car in a turn lane and deduce that the driver wants to turn left. In the future, technology may allow cars to communicate directly with the signals instead of with sensors attempting to guess a driver’s intent.
“That would be the ultimate goal,” Moen says.
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