It always has kind of been like a soap opera.
Starts and stops. Twists and turns (well, lots of turns anyway). Even an occasional overheating.
It is the world of Lawrence traffic — and now it has become the newest thing in daytime television.
City traffic supervisor James Risner, at his offices at Fifth and Mississippi, has a TV-viewing room that would make an “As the World Turns” junkie blush. On a single flat-screen TV, Risner can watch the traffic at nine intersections in real time. On another television, Risner can zoom in at a specific intersection and see a host of graphics, which include showing when the traffic signals change from red to green and even when the crosswalks change from walk to don’t walk.
“It shows you exactly what is going on at an intersection exactly at that moment,” Risner said.
Of course, the city’s traffic command center doesn’t exist to satisfy people’s curiosity about what is happening at the corner of Ninth and Iowa streets at any given moment. City leaders hope that all the cameras, TVs and high-tech equipment are the first step in creating a scene that may be worthy of a gasp much like when those soap fans found out the doctor’s half-brother really was the father of the maven’s long-lost identical twin who was lost at birth but then returned to claim the family fortune. (Or something like that.)
“The ideal situation will be when you can start driving on 23rd Street at Iowa heading east, and you won’t have to stop at a single light on your way out of town,” Risner said. “That’s the way traffic coordination can work. Our goal with this is to move platoons of cars.”
Now that would be interesting daytime television.
Cameras up high
Lawrence’s Traffic Engineering Division entered the world of Intelligent Transportation Systems about one year ago, when cameras were added to intersections along portions of Sixth and Iowa streets.
In addition to the cameras, the signals also were connected to strands of fiber-optic cable that allow video and traffic data to be relayed back to the traffic engineering offices at Fifth and Mississippi streets.
The division currently has cameras at 12 intersections, but by the end of the summer, the number will grow to 21. Construction crews soon will begin work to pull fiber-optic cable to every traffic signal on 23rd Street between Iowa and Harper.
Engineers with the traffic division aren’t promising the new technology will solve all 23rd Street problems.
“A street that is over capacity is still going to be over capacity even if it has cameras,” Traffic Engineer David Woosley said.
But the new technology gives engineers a fighting chance to make crowded streets more functional without expensive improvements like additional driving lanes. The biggest benefit may be how much easier the technology allows for the synchronization of traffic signals.
Currently, when the traffic division tries to synchronize traffic lights along 23rd Street, it requires at least one trip — but often times multiple trips — to each traffic signal to manually program the signal.
Lawrence intersections that currently have cameras:
• Kansas Turnpike Entrance on North Third
• North Second and Lyons
• North Second and Locust
• Sixth and Kentucky
• Sixth and Michigan
• Sixth and Maine
• Sixth and Iowa
• Ninth and Iowa
• Harvard and Iowa
• 15th and Iowa
• 19th and Iowa
• 23rd and Iowa
As a result, most Lawrence traffic signals are synchronized to a fairly basic level. In Lawrence, most signals are programmed to have three timing patterns: one for the morning, one for the midday and one for the evening. In other communities with Intelligent Transportation Systems, like Overland Park, for example, it is not uncommon for busy corridors to have 10 or 11 different timing patterns. That’s because synchronization can be done by a single worker from a computer screen.
Eventually, Woosley said, Lawrence will get to the point it has more advance traffic light coordination. The technology could allow for special traffic light patterns for stretches of road that are under construction or for when the city is hosting major sporting events or other large traffic generators.
The technology also should make it easier for the division to gather data about how Lawrence’s streets operate. Instead of the imprecise rubber-hose-style traffic counters, the new technology allows employees to draw a box on a computer screen, train the camera in that direction and tell the computer to count every vehicle that enters the area.
The system also should lead to quicker repairs of broken traffic signals. Currently the traffic engineering division has to wait until a citizen or, frequently, a police officer calls in with information about a broken signal. The new system will send an alert anytime a signal becomes inoperable. But the biggest time savings may come when there is snow on the ground. When the streets are covered in snow, Risner said, motorists often pull up to a signal straddling traffic lanes. That confuses the signal’s sensors, and often the signal doesn’t recognize a vehicle is waiting for a change in lights. Before the new system, the only solution was a trip to the intersection to reconfigure sensor devices. Now the system allows a computer operator to make the changes remotely.
“What used to take a couple of guys a couple of hours to repair now can be done by one guy in about 15 minutes,” Risner said.
A future expansion?
Woosley said he would like to see the cameras added to Sixth Street west of Iowa, Clinton Parkway, the far reaches of South Iowa Street, and to major streets around the university, allowing the system to be more useful on Kansas University game days.
But funding may be an issue in the future. Thus far, the projects haven’t been overly expensive. The 23rd Street project, for example, has a price tag of $180,000, but a state grant is paying for all but $30,000.
The 23rd Street project, like the others before it, benefited from the fact empty conduit already was in the ground along the street. That’s not the situation on other city streets.
But Chuck Soules, the city’s director of public works, said the city is working to negotiate deals with communications companies to add empty conduit as part of their ongoing work in the city. The empty conduit would serve as a partial payment for use of the city’s rights-of-way by the companies, Soules said.
A larger question about the future may be how the system is used for nontraffic purposes. Already, Woosley said, there is talk of allowing the county’s emergency management command center to tap into the system. The cameras could serve as an extra set of eyes during severe weather events. Each camera can remotely be rotated 360 degrees to scan the sky or look for flooded intersections.
Whether the cameras should be used for law enforcement purposes likely would require a larger debate. State law currently does not allow the cameras to be used as “red-light cameras” that can be used in issuing tickets to motorists who run stop lights.
The cameras also aren’t currently being used to capture images of vehicle accidents. That’s because the Traffic Center doesn’t routinely record footage. Woosley said it would take a tremendous amount of computer space to store all of the images the cameras capture.
But the cameras and their zoom lenses do have recording capabilities. The camera on top of City Hall at Sixth and Massachusetts, for instance, can pick up images at 14th and Massachusetts streets.
Woosley said the combination of the fiber-optic cables and the cameras create a powerful technology network for future city uses.
“You basically just have to figure out what you want the system to be, and then figure out how you are going to fund it,” Woosley said.