By Kent Spencer, The Province
SURREY — Is Surrey smarter in some respects than other cities in Metro Vancouver? The city’s traffic engineers think so.
The city’s ability to tweak the timing on signal lights from a centralized control room is unmatched elsewhere in the Lower Mainland and most cities in the world, said Jaime Boan, manager of transportation.
“Our traffic management centre is a showcase. We are definitely leaders. Vancouver was here; Burnaby, ICBC and Metro Vancouver have also visited. People have come from Taiwan and China,” said Boan.
“The movement of cars and goods is in demand. We need to maximize capacity on our roads. This system speeds up travel times, improves safety and provides information about crashes.”
Surrey’s capabilities outstrip those in cities like Vancouver. The city has remote cameras at 325 locations; for Vancouver it’s just 80.
Surrey’s signal lights are connected to the central control room by radio; older technology in cities like Vancouver is contained in signal boxes at the intersections where timing alterations must be done by hand.
Surrey’s radio controls at 370 intersections are useful in overcoming localized backups and smoothing flows to make the best use of the city’s roads.
The techniques are especially useful at major accidents where green lights can be added as necessary to disperse vehicles quickly.
Steve Brown, Vancouver’s manager of traffic and data management, said the city’s base network is “older than other cities.”
“We do timing changes to signals overnight after testing them in our traffic signal shop. We don’t do it on the fly,” he said.
Surrey’s traffic management plan has been five years in the making at a capital cost of about $4 million.
The control room at city hall features a wall-sized video screen that displays real-time information from remote cameras covering intersections. A half-dozen computer stations are manned by traffic engineers.
Amer Afridi, traffic team signal lead, said huge quantities of data are collected by the system. The information allows traffic plans to be worked out to create the best signal configurations.
Surrey has five such plans for different times of the day and week. When a new plan starts up, the timing at individual lights is changed automatically.
“Green waves” are a favoured tactic, where motorists encounter a succession of green lights in a given direction on a commuter route.
“The more times people stop, the slower the traffic, and more stops increases the likelihood of rear-enders,” said Afridi. “We can also discourage speeders by making sure that going faster than the posted limit leads to stopping at red lights.”
Boan said it’s impossible to know how much time motorists save on a daily basis. But congestion around a major incident last year on Highway No. 1 was easily diffused by a couple of operators in the control room, he said.
The highway was closed westbound at 176 Street as a result of a collision, resulting in hundreds of cars pouring into North Surrey. At one point, the line was 3.2 kilometres long, but operators applied a steady stream of green lights along 96 Avenue to clear the jam in about 30 minutes. Boan said those types of incidents occur on average once a month.
Data on every camera is recorded 24-7 and used to assist police, ICBC and the public with criminal/insurance cases. The data is stored with the permission of B.C.’s privacy commissioner, said Boan.
The smart signals are also able to sense the approach of fire trucks and get them to emergencies faster.
Boan said the system offers good value: The same $4 million for the traffic centre would pay for just 500 metres of a two-lane road being widened to four. Operational costs are $250,000 per year and the system uses a city-owned radio communications network that reduces costs by $100,000 annually.
Surrey’s traffic innovation has impressed the adjudicating team at the Intelligent Community Forum, a New York-based think-tank encompassing a global network of 145 countries, cities and towns.
Surrey is among seven communities in the running for the title of the world’s most intelligent city; the others are Hsinchu County, Taiwan; Montreal; Muelheim an der Ruhr, Germany; New Taipei City, Taiwan; Whanganui, New Zealand; and Winnipeg.
Surrey’s submission was based on things like its traffic system, a biofuels plant, open data and city-wide Wi-Fi.
The winner will be announced later this month.