Can crowd-sourced traffic data help a city re-time its traffic lights on the fly?

The city of Austin hopes so, approving a plan that will use the data to improve traffic flow by reducing bottlenecks on a minute-by-minute basis, especially following major events, such as football games at the University Texas at Austin.

"At this point, we still aren't completely clear how the technology will work on this," said Teri Pennington, deputy CIO of the city. "However, it will be based on signals from motorists' phone apps.”

The technology will track how fast the motorists are going, how many motorists are in a certain location and which directions they are traveling. "The system will then extrapolate from that how bad the traffic jams are," she said. "For example, when a UT football game gets out, this creates an instant traffic jam. The idea is that lights will dynamically start to be reset based on this new information."

The university’s DKR–Texas Memorial Stadium has a capacity of 100,119, making it one of the largest football stadiums in the country. Austin’s population is just under 850,000.

According to Pennington, the core system is in place. "Currently we are working on the connectivity, as well as how the mobile apps will communicate securely into the core system," she said.

The idea for the city’s crowd-sourced traffic data system emerged from Imagine Austin, a two-year, community-driven campaign to envision how the city can grow in a more compact and connected way.

"The goal was to find out what was important to citizens," said Pennington. "As you can probably imagine, traffic was high on the list. Austin is all about being compact and connected, but there was a need to help people move more quickly through the downtown area as well as out into the suburbs."

The city's transportation bond packages, passed in 2006, 2010 and 2012, funded the Advanced Traffic Management System's creation, and also will fund an upgrade to the system and improvements to transportation infrastructure, including transportation technology. The city needs to replace 700 traffic switches, plus miles of fiber, according to Pennington.

Austin selected Kimley-Horn, a design consulting firm, to develop the city’s traffic management system. Pennington described the firm’s software as an “ERP system for traffic.” In fact, this is the first time that GPS technology will be used to change lights, instead of light sensors, which emergency vehicles such as police cars and fire trucks have been using for years. "The system will also handle other signs on the road, such as those in school zones," she said.

Following the Imagine Austin campaign, one of the first steps taken by the city to improve movement in Austin was to encourage people to use alternative forms of transportation, such as buses and bikes. "Initially we partnered with Capital Metro [the city’s public transportation agency] and concentrated on using technology to improve traffic patterns on the MetroRapid bus service routes," she said.

Next, to boost bike ridership in the city, Austin is installing a bicycle detection system, so that cyclists who have an app on their smartphone can "catch the lights" more often when they are biking.

A cyclist turns the app on and starts biking, and the app uses GPS to communicate with the cloud to tell the city's system where he or she is, Pennington said, adding that it uses parameters to eliminate non-cyclists -- those going to fast or too slow. "Our system pulls that GPS data, and if the light is close to turning red [due to set parameters], it may hold a few more seconds. The app's GPS then tells the system it is past the light, and the system starts to watch the next light in your path." 

The city will continue to expand its transportation options and will be rolling out a number of efficiency modules over the next five years. While Austin's Department of Transportation is responsible for rolling out the modules, Pennington's team will help with the infrastructure. "Our role is to make sure that the systems are up and that they will be communicating with each other, to make sure we have disaster recovery in place, and to make sure that the system has the bandwidth that it needs."

Why the need for certain amounts of bandwidth? "This system has hundreds of cameras," Pennington said, "so we want to make sure we can get these camera feeds out to citizens so they can see what traffic patterns are like."

William Atkinson  |  Contributing Writer
William Atkinson has been a full-time freelance business writer since 1976, with experience in writing about all facets of business, industry and government.