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Winnipeg traffic lights get ‘smarter’

A recently implemented traffic signals system is gaining attention around the world.

The City of Winnipeg’s smart new Transportation Management Centre (TMC) is garnering attention from other municipalities thanks to the speed of its implementation and the cost at which it was realized.

Thanks to the deployment of cellular modems at all of the city’s 650 signalized intersections, the city opened its state-of-the-art TMC earlier this year. At the traffic ‘nerve centre’ city staff can monitor the function of signals in real time and utilize video feeds from more than 70 cameras deployed at strategic locations like major intersections and river crossings as part of the program.

A huge step up

City staff can now respond remotely to deal with signal malfunctions and traffic incidents to help improve traffic flow. Before implementing the system, only the simplest of information was sent back from few signal controllers and it often took reports from the public to begin troubleshooting a problem.

The city took a collaborative approach on the project with Bell MTS, who provided the network solutions. The system functions thanks to Sierra modems connected with traffic signal control systems, which transmit real-time information back to the TMC via the Bell MTS cellular network.

“It’s all on secure wireless network access (SWNA),” said Chris Limosenero, of Bell MTS Business Wireless Enterprise and Signature Accounts. “It’s only available for the City of Winnipeg and it’s not a public IP.”

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A remarkably fast transition

“In eight months, we connected the whole city, 100 per cent, which has not really happened when other (municipalities) have tried to do it with other communication options like point-to-point or fibre optic,” said Michael Cantor, Traffic Signals Engineer with the City of Winnipeg. “We were able to do it fast and at a low cost.”

The city has made a $3.6-million capital investment in the TMC.

“What we’ve done has not been done elsewhere,” said Jonathan Foord, Signals Asset Engineer with the City of Winnipeg.

Foord said the city had looked into building its own point-to-point wireless network for traffic signals, but decided to move to the cellular system.

“We quickly found out that on the public spectrum, everybody is trying to get into it and wanted to hook up for free,” Foord said. “It gets crowded.”

Foord said other municipalities and the province of Manitoba had done some work with cellular modems, but hadn’t applied it to an entire traffic control system.

Sierra Wireless modems used at every Winnipeg traffic signal intersection

The system functions thanks to Sierra modems, which transmit real-time info back to the Transportation Management Centre.

“It was often used as a final option when you had an isolated location,” Cantor said. “For us, we made it the permanent and main solution. That was due to two things. First, the technology was in place and 4G gave us good quality communications. The other thing is cost. The cost went down to a level that is sustainable by our operating budget.”

Opening eyes around the world

Since getting the new system up and running, Foord said he has seen interest in the initiative from other municipalities, including the city of Chicago, who he says are now looking at a cellular-modem first strategy to connect their 3,000 traffic signals, instead of using fibre-optic.

“They were quite keen,” Foord said. “Essentially what we did was hook up the entire city in eight months. You compare that to fibre and installing hundreds of kilometres, where you’re looking at over 10 years at best and probably $140 million, if not more. We’re opening eyes around the world to realize what’s possible currently.”

Cellular modems are used by Winnipeg’s Water and Waste Department to monitor for flooding or system failures, and are deployed in Winnipeg Transit buses to trigger transit-priority signals.

“The buzz-word is ‘smart cities’ and at the root of a smart city is the communication network,” Foord said. “Because we’ve gone through this, it enables us to more rapidly realize other benefits in the future. We’re looking at (traffic signal control) for transit and emergency services as well. It really is an enabler for us to do things that were once not possible.”

Connecting with motorists

City officials are also encouraging motorists to take advantage of the free traffic app Waze to receive and share information about traffic conditions on the city’s roadways. Waze is the world’s largest crowd-sourced traffic navigation app, with over 75 million users. It has already partnered with over 250 municipalities and state agencies.

Waze traffic app

Via Waze, the city will gather and share traffic-related information including congestion, lane closures, signal malfunctions and stalled vehicles.

“We’ve partnered with Waze to get information on incidents and slowdowns throughout the city, in real time,” Foord said.

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Jason Halstead

Jason is a Winnipeg-based journalist and photographer who has been published across Canadian media.

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