U Lab to Study Oly Traffic

This winter, about 250,000 visitors will descend on the Wasatch Front. Many of them will join Utahns on the roads, shuttling to events scattered from Park City to West Valley to the University of Utah.

An immense inconvenience for some, this situation provides an unprecedented opportunity for traffic researcher Peter Martin.

The U’s traffic lab, which Martin directs, will keep an eye on the roads when the Olympic Winter Games come to town.

Earlier this fall, the lab gained access to the flow of traffic information the Utah Department of Transportation receives. Live footage from 156 cameras that UDOT placed along the Wasatch Front shows up on monitors in the lab. Sensors buried in the pavement send data on the speed, the distance between cars and other factors.

“We have the connectivity, and we have a lot of students trained in this type of work. It’s a neat fit,” Martin said.

During the Games, the lab will collect basic traffic data such as speed, occupancy and flow. Not only will cameras make video records of the traffic patterns, but about eight students will head out into the field to make counts the old fashioned way.

After the semester ends and the lab has sifted through the data collected, the results will be presented at a workshop.

The lab’s work is part of a larger project to assess UDOT’s traffic management system.

But data the lab gathers during the Olympics could also beef up the lab’s ability to model and predict traffic on Utah’s network of roads.

Traffic conditions during the Olympics will provide an important learning opportunity, according to Martin.

Studying what happens can provide insight into planning major events and preparing for the unexpected.

The more traffic on the roads, the more impact an accident or other incident, will have.

Martin believes public transit during the Games will provide a “great help.”

During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, public transit ridership reached its highest rates ever, according to Michael Uherta, SLOC’s managing director of public information.

This year, during Games-time, the Utah Transit Authority plans to extend hours and capacity for light rail and certain bus routes.

Congestion will vary greatly depending on the route and the time of day, according to Uherta.

Normal traffic must shrink by 20 percent to accommodate visitors and prevent major gridlock.

By working from alternate locations, carpooling, using park and ride, vacation time, combining errands to make only one trip, the list of ways Utahns can cut their time on the road is long.

Shifting work hours is another solution. While traffic will probably remain normal at 9 a.m., 5 p.m. may be a different story.

“One of the things we’re focusing on with businesses here is how can we alter these hours and shift the work-day earlier,” Uherta said. “It worked in Atlanta, and it a worked in Los Angeles.”

Some businesses are responding by urging employees to adopt a six to two schedule.

But predicting just how traffic will flow during the Olympics is difficult.

“People are funny. We don’t know what they are going to do,” Martin said.

The Olympic Transportation Guide will appear in Smith’s Food and Drug stores beginning Nov. 21 and online at www.utahcommuterlink.com.

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