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New York's award-winning traffic control system

First publishedin ITS International
January February 2013
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New York: the Midtown in Motion project
New York: the Midtown in Motion project has been shown to have improved travel time by 10% across its area of influence (Pic: www.christopherspenn.com)

A comprehensive ITS strategy in New York built on a system of key building blocks has been crowned with an IRF award for the city’s Midtown in Motion adaptive control system. Jon Masters reviews New York’s ITS modernisation plan as the city looks to the next phase of expansion.

In January this year the International Road Federation (IRF) presented TransCore and the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) with the IRF Global Road Achievement Award. This was for deployment of New York’s Midtown in Motion (MiM) adaptive traffic signal control system.

The MiM project, initiated and applied to Manhattan in 2011, has been evaluated and shown to have im­proved travel time by 10% across its area of influence. NYCDOT is now expanding the system and looking to apply similar approaches to other New York boroughs.

The IRF award also comes as recognition for NYCDOT’s long-term ITS strategy, because it is this programme of investment that has provided the technological foundations for MiM. The city’s ITS modernisation plan is multi-faceted, but three main ‘building blocks’ have made NYCDOT’s recent advances in traffic management possi­ble: a modern Traffic Management Centre (TMC) has been installed; a comprehensive wireless communications network has been built; and a programme of upgrading intersection traffic signal controllers has been rolled out across the city.

Platform for progress

These building blocks are now at a stage where they are more or less complete. The TMC is fully up and running (at NYCDOT’s facility in Long Island City in Queens); the wireless network – the New York City Wireless information Network (NYCWiN) – is fully deployed; and around 10,000 of the city’s 12,000 signalized intersections have been fitted with advanced solid state traffic controllers.

Overall, it’s a system of ITS infrastructure that should enable NYC­DOT to do a lot of good things for traffic and transportation in the city.

One company that has been heavily involved in New York’s ITS developments is Transcore. Its vice president, Bob Rausch, says: “The NYCWiN is a licensed frequency service shared across many authori­ties and agencies in the city. It has over 350 cell sites connected to a hub in Brooklyn and to the TMC via a secure connection. New York’s smart traffic controllers can be configured to do just about anything and they can be connected wirelessly to the TMC, which has a lot of capability including a high capacity local area network (LAN) for the DOT to use. It’s one heck of an infrastructure.”

The city is now in the position where it can plug just about any ITS device into its wireless network, including RFID readers of E-ZPass toll tags. According to Rausch, about 80% of vehicles in New York now have such passes, so the readers can be used as an effective means for monitoring traffic flow. Some 40 to 50 tag readers have been used as part of a network of traffic sensors employed across the MiM project.
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New York traffic management centre in Queens
The New York traffic management centre in Queens – a key building block of the city's ITS modernisation
This is not the only example of how NYCDOT is making use of its modernised ITS infrastructure. New York was due to launch a new transit signal prior­ity scheme throughout its M15 bus route in February this year, as part of a push for more multimodality, making use of signal controllers configured accordingly and GPS equipment already fitted to buses in the city.

Midtown in Motion

Other variations in the MiM project and adaptive signal control are likely to form a key part of NYCDOT’s efforts in future.

“Midtown in Motion was started in 2011 with the stated objective of improving mo­bility and reducing delays due to traffic con­gestion,” says NYCDOT’s deputy director for systems engineering, Mohamad Talas. This was across a 110 block square ‘zone’ from 57th to 42nd Street and from Second to Sixth Avenue.

“The underlying strategy was to use key ITS deployed, including city-wide wireless connections between the TMC and advanced signal controllers,” Talas says.

“As a result of this strategic deployment over the past decade, we have been able to design appropriate active and adaptive signal control, with traffic monitoring using E-ZPass and spot detection microwave technology for detecting volume flow rate and queuing in streets of the MiM zone.”

Prior to the MiM system going live, data from the network of sensors within the 110 block square was used for analysis of traffic flow during incidents and different times of the day.

The resulting database of traffic demand was used to generate a two-level strategy: at one level, an ‘algorithm of adaptive control’ would respond to real-time traffic flow data, adjusting green-time signal phasing to anticipate build-ups of congestion; at a second level, TMC operators would respond to discrete incidents with appropriate action such as activation of pre-determined signal phasing, or requesting response from New York’s Police Department.

The MiM system ‘went live’ in August 2011. Since then, NYCDOT has been able to carry out a study of the effects. According to Talas, the general evaluation has shown an overall improvement in travel time of 10%. “This is very good in comparison to other ITS projects,” he says. “The central business district was chosen for this project because it is a grid environment subject to exceptional conditions of traffic saturation, where demand often exceeds capac­ity. Based on the success of MiM, we are expanding the system east, west and south, adding another 150 blocks.”

The MiM will not expand to the north because the existing block is already constrained in that direction by Central Park. Further traffic monitoring equipment will be installed within and outside the newly enlarged zone, however. “This will be done to make sure there are no detrimental results for surrounding streets and to ensure the effects are consistent,” says Talas.

Project expansion

NYCDOT is also looking at making use of its ITS building blocks to apply similar projects to address traffic issues in other New York boroughs. These are likely to be on a smaller scale, Talas says, such as in the vicinity of Staten Island College.

“For each environment, we will be studying how best to improve mobility in that particular area, considering specific traffic conditions and other transportation characteristics. Some locations will be less predictable in terms of traffic flow and so ITS systems will be more about reacting rapidly to changes,” says Talas.

Other projects in New York’s ITS pipeline – besides the ongoing work with bus rapid transit signal priority measures – include efforts to address safety by improving pedestrian crossings at intersections, all of which can now be done at relatively low cost.

The investment for MiM, over and above the ITS architecture already installed, came in at under $2m. “There is a key issue here,” Talas says. “Having an effective wireless network as a backbone for ITS communications allows installation of monitoring and control technology on existing street poles without additional infrastructure.”

Companies in this article

New York City Department of Transportation
International Road Federation

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