Dec. 16, 2016 | Joel Schlesinger
Road smartsCity delves into intelligent traffic technologies in preparation of autonomous future
There's method to the madness that is Calgary's rush-hour traffic.
And if autonomous vehicles play into mainstream society the way many are predicting, our city could be at the forefront of changing that daily commute, suggest local officials.
While drivers stuck in gridlock may feel differently, Calgary currently operates one of the most advanced traffic systems in Canada – a claim backed up earlier year in a TomTom Traffic Index survey that identified Calgary as the least congested city in Canada.
The 2016 survey by the navigation product expert showed Calgary's congestion rate has dropped three per cent since 2015. In 2016, vehicle commutes are 19 per cent slower, equal to 21 minutes, due to congestion. That's compared with Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, where motorist can spend nearly 30 per cent extra time travelling due to congestion.
"Actually, there is a huge amount of work, programming and analysis that goes into these traffic signals and other aspects," said Yeatland Wong, senior engineer for intelligent transportation systems with the City of Calgary.
"Each individual driver may not see benefits immediately, but it's important to take a big picture point of view of the entire network."
Calgary's traffic — which includes pedestrians, bikes, buses, trains and automobiles —is managed out of a dedicated traffic management centre along Spiller Road S.E. In addition to overseeing traffic lights, the control hub sends out road condition information and traffic congestion warnings through mass and social media, and switches lane directions to improve traffic flows at different times of day.
The centre also has its eye on the future – in particular, how it can advance its current infrastructure to leverage information and other technologies that will reduce congestion and improve roadway safety.
"Even though it's been assumed they will improve road safety, we're not even sure to what extent."
Much of its preparation of late is aimed at gearing up for the coming of autonomous vehicles — a brave new world that experts believe will shape how communities are designed and built in the future.
"Even though it's been assumed they will improve road safety, we're not even sure to what extent," said Lina Kattan, an associate professor at the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary.
"We cannot say we're 100 per cent sure how these technologies will affect how people live and where they live."
For example, autonomous vehicles – in which a vehicle can guide itself using sensors, cameras and network connectivity – are expected to make driver error collisions a thing of the past. But Kattan, an intelligent traffic systems expert, said while automated vehicles might improve safety, it won't happen overnight.
"There will be a very long period where there will be a mixture," she said of autonomous and driver-controlled vehicles.
And then there's the question of the level of automation.
"The automation comes at various levels," said Kattan. "Even today, we have automatic cruise control and other automated controls the driver can override."
At the other end of the spectrum, tomorrow's vehicles could be fully automated without even a steering wheel, she noted.
Self-driving vehicles could also dramatically change how we live, added Wong.
"It would eliminate a lot of the need for parking, for example," he said. Hypothetically, automated car owners could have their vehicle drop them off downtown, and then the vehicle could get to work as an Uber-type taxi driving people around the city.
Residents might also determine they no longer need a vehicle if they can jump into someone else's automated ride, added Wong.
Calgary's homebuilding industry is already paying attention to how self-driving vehicles will impact future community development, said Sophie Gowsell, spokeswoman for the Canadian Home Builders' Association and Urban Development Institute (CHBA-UDI), Calgary Region
"As technology grows and information comes available, there is no doubt it will be more incorporated," she said.
Gowsell noted intelligent traffic designs are already being incorporated into newly built communities where improved access to walking and biking paths and public transit help reduce roadway congestion.
Meanwhile the City is upping its traffic management game to prepare for the future, including plans to build a new, state-of-the-art traffic management centre.
"It's a constantly changing environment, for sure," said Wong.
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