Traffic Lab Peers Through UDOT’s Eyes

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A screen on the wall of the University of Utah?s Traffic Lab showed the cars below slipping past on I-15.

At 11 a.m., traffic is light, and cars are generously spaced. But about 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, they stagnate, and the ramps back up onto the freeway, according to Peter Martin, the lab?s director.

Other views of traffic around the Wasatch Front show up on all four of the monitors and a larger, rear-projected screen. The images feed live from cameras?156 in all?placed by the Utah Department of Transportation.

The lab began receiving the video feed Sept. 21, completing a six-year, $500,000 project.

Sensors buried by UDOT in the pavement will also take data?measuring vehicles? speed, the distance between them and other basic traffic information. But due to problems with light rail construction, the lab does not yet have access to this data, according to Joe Perrin, the lab?s associate director.

?We?re one of about three universities in the United States with this kind of info coming in,? he said.

One camera perches atop the Kennecott Building, which houses the lab.

Martin cued a view of 100 South on a monitor. The morning rush has passed, and traffic has lightened. Under his direction, the camera traces the sharp bend in the road, turning north.

?There?s the ped crossing where you take your life in your hands,? Martin said. The monitor shows thick white lines on the pavement near the Merrill Engineering Building.

The lab?s monitors are a ?mock up? of UDOT?s huge wall. But UDOT uses the video feed to respond to accidents and control the variable message signs which loom over the lanes, Martin said.

To select a view, the lab can use data from its own sensors, most of which are placed around campus, and UDOT?s?when it becomes available, according to Perrin.

The lab can look at up to eight camera feeds at once, he said.

According to Martin, access to the video feeds supports the lab?s research on projects only 10 to 15 years away from implementation.

For instance, the lab tests strategies for coordinating traffic flow onto the freeway to combat congestion further downstream.

Another project involves coordinating traffic signals grouped together within a network to minimize the delay throughout.

An industrial VCR tucked behind the monitors can record a couple of days of video feed. When put through a processor, the tape counts cars.

Even at its worst during I-15 reconstruction, Utah?s traffic pales in comparison to what Martin has seen elsewhere.

?In Europe, traffic is an old problem,? he said. ?America just built its way up to congestion.?

Cities in the United States are now reaching the level of traffic congestion Europe dealt with 30 years ago.

But a growing population is encroaching into the wide, open spaces Utahns are accustomed to. Only so many roads can be built through a valley encased by mountains and a lake, Martin said.

The solution is a multifaceted one, according to Martin. For one thing, roads need to be funded differently.

The current gas tax is a crude method. Cities in Asia and in Europe have set up systems to charge drivers according to when and where they drive. Under this sort of system, those crowding onto the freeway late Friday afternoon would pay more than those who commute during off hours.

But, in general, traffic issues can be touchy ones.

A Dutch coalition government wanted to introduce tolls to its roads with dramatic results.

?It was the first time a Western government toppled over transportation issues,? he said.

As a result of the push, the coalition collapsed, and a general election was held shortly afterward.

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