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Atlanta's Smart Corridor to Serve as "Living Lab" for Smart Transportation

In the second installment of MetroLab's Innovation of the Month series, we recognize the city of Atlanta and Georgia Institute of Technology, whose partnership is transforming one of the city's key transit arteries into a smart cities test bed.

In the second installment of MetroLab's Innovation of the Month series (read last month's here), we recognize the city of Atlanta and Georgia Institute of Technology, who recently launched their North Avenue Smart Corridor in mid-September. The corridor will serve as a public demonstration and “living lab” for Internet of Things (IoT) deployment, data collection and analytics, connected and autonomous vehicles, and unique partnerships to fundamentally transform how Atlanta plans for, designs and operates its transportation infrastructure.

MetroLab's Executive Director Ben Levine sat down with Renew Atlanta's General Manager Fay DiMassimo and Georgia Tech's Managing Director for Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation Debra Lam to discuss the project.

Ben Levine: Could you please describe what the North Avenue Smart Corridor Project is and who's been involved?

Faye DiMassimo: The city of Atlanta has embarked on a journey of resurgence to improve the look, feel and experience of the city for its citizens, visitors and businesses. The city’s SMARTAtl program’s mission is to enable the city, citizens and businesses to improve the livability of the city and foster economic growth by leveraging IoT and big data analytics. Renew Atlanta — an infrastructure improvement program established through a transportation bond — took on the development and deployment of the state’s first Smart Corridor demonstration project.

Working in coordination with the Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT), Renew Atlanta selected North Avenue for this demonstration, partly because its crash rate is almost three times higher than the statewide average for similar corridors. North Avenue is a key east-west arterial in Atlanta serving numerous destinations, institutions, employment and neighborhoods of single-family homes. The corridor is also served by numerous transit operators and routes, intersects with key bicycle routes, and includes 18 signalized intersections between Northside Drive and Freedom Parkway. In addition to the Georgia DOT, the city has enlisted two key partners: Together for Safer Roads, a cross-industry coalition of global companies that collaborate to improve road safety; and the Georgia Institute of Technology, which will research, test and validate the smart technology that has been deployed along North Avenue.

Debra Lam: Georgia Tech has been closely involved in the North Avenue Smart Corridor and Atlanta’s broader smart cities plans. Specifically, we have been helping to develop, deploy and evaluate smart technologies aimed at improving public safety, environmental health and traffic congestion along the North Avenue corridor pilot. Our goal with Atlanta is to institutionalize research and development into city operations — where the university benefits from real-world applications of research and the city can utilize the most advanced research to benefit the community at large. 


Map highlighting the North Avenue Smart Corridor intersection locations. Courtesy of Renew Atlanta. See also an interactive map detailing the Corridor’s location in Atlanta and proximity to major institutions in the region.

Levine: Can you describe what this project focused on and what motivated you to address this particular challenge?

DiMassimo: The design includes the installation and use of over 100 IoT sensors at 18 signalized intersections, an adaptive signal timing system, vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, and reconfiguration of the existing roadway through restriping to support crash reduction and future acceptance of autonomous vehicles.

The adaptive signal technology combines artificial intelligence with traffic theory. The system is designed for an urban setting, which takes into consideration non-vehicular modes, including pedestrians, bicyclists and transit. It responds in real time to these mobility types through advanced video detection systems that identify vehicle types, speed, volumes and queues. Thermal imaging and video cameras provide pedestrian and bicycle detection for adaptive control of the traffic signals, relieving these roadway users from having to push a button. 

The “everything connected to everything” vehicle-to-infrastructure concept connects all mobility users to each other and to the infrastructure in the street. The technology provides emergency vehicle pre-emption through traffic signalized corridors (where signals change to green for faster response times), provides drivers with signal phasing and timing data to their phones and cars, alerts drivers when they are speeding through a school zone or sharp curve, and alerts cyclists and pedestrians of vehicles approaching too fast or too close. All of the communication from the infrastructure and different mobility users is disseminated to a smartphone app called Travel Safely that improves safety for the overall traveling public.

These improvements and technology deployments are being driven by the mobility demands on the corridor, a previous lack of traffic management and a real need for safety improvements. 

Lam: I think Georgia Tech Professor Mike Hunter, said it best: “For me it’s about quality of life. Can I make the environment, the systems and the operations of transportation work better? Can I improve the efficiency? Can I make the corridor safer? What can I do to make the transportation system work better?” That’s why we’re involved, to help address these challenges. Prof. Hunter is in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and is calculating emissions and energy usage along the corridor.

Levine: What were some of the advantages of the partnership between Renew Atlanta and Georgia Tech?

DiMassimo: Because of Georgia Tech’s physical proximity to the North Avenue corridor, many professors and students have a familiarity with and interest in the corridor that will provide added benefit to Renew Atlanta’s project. They understand the issues and potential opportunities and can bring advanced research capabilities that a local government doesn’t have. Georgia Tech will be conducting research to help test and validate the many technologies that have been deployed in the corridor to see if they are truly beneficial to multimodal safety, congestion and the environment.

Lam: This partnership is really critical to making these sorts of projects work because each group is bringing something different to the table. The city is the one that owns and operates the corridor and the infrastructure. At Georgia Tech, we are modelling these types of corridors to better understand the connection between emissions, energy consumption, traffic congestion and public safety. We share our findings with the city, who can then make the appropriate adjustments to improve the corridor for everyone who uses it. No one entity can make smart cities successful or owns smart cities. It is important that we all work together. 

Levine: Where will this project go from here? 

DiMassimo: The North Avenue Smart Corridor demonstration project includes a second phase that will include major upgrades to the traffic signals along the corridor and installation of fiber communications. We will be exploring additional connected and autonomous vehicle opportunities. As we monitor and learn from the initial smart technologies and integrate the findings from our research partnership with Georgia Tech, the Renew Atlanta effort will be rolling out additional smart transportation solutions to additional corridors and activity centers throughout the city of Atlanta.

Lam: As for Georgia Tech's work along the corridor, we are hoping that access to new streams of data will allow us to more accurately model the corridor and provide useful recommendations to the city. Beyond North Avenue, we are moving strategically with the city to continue to advance Atlanta as the place for smart cities from research to action and partnership. 

For more information or to get in contact with the project leads, please contact MetroLab.

About MetroLab: MetroLab Network introduces a new model for bringing data, analytics, and innovation to local government: a network of institutionalized, cross-disciplinary partnerships between cities/counties and their universities. Its membership includes more than 35 such partnerships in the United States, ranging from mid-size cities to global metropolises. These city-university partnerships focus on the research, development, and deployment of projects that offer technologically- and analytically-based solutions to challenges facing urban areas including: inequality in income, health, mobility, security and opportunity; aging infrastructure; and environmental sustainability and resiliency. MetroLab was launched as part of the White House’s 2015 Smart Cities Initiative.

Ben Levine serves as executive director of MetroLab Network.