Thinning out Apple Jams

May 14, 2015

Sophisticated traffic-management system aims to improve Midtown traffic flow.

Real-time management of vehicle and pedestrian traffic flow can be a daunting task—especially in New York City’s busiest borough. But a new traffic-management system aims to change that. Imagine traffic engineers with the ability to monitor live traffic conditions and adjust signal times at the touch of a button; this new system allows New York traffic engineers to do just that.

On Monday, July 18, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Administrator Victor Mendez joined New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, FHWA New York Division Administrator Jon McDade and other local officials in Queens at the Joint Traffic Management Center (JTMC) to launch this new traffic-management system. Dubbed “Midtown in Motion,” this sophisticated system is designed to improve the flow of traffic and safeguard pedestrians in the 110-sq-block heart of New York City.

With the simple push of a button, Mendez, Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan launched the system. This was not an ordinary ceremonial ribbon-cutting event—this simple act actually activated Midtown in Motion’s command center.

Just-in-time response

Midtown in Motion, a technology-based traffic-management system, allows New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) traffic engineers to monitor and respond to midtown traffic conditions in real-time, improving traffic flow in Manhattan’s most congested area: from Second to Sixth avenues and from 42nd to 57th streets.

Midtown in Motion manages traffic flow by adjusting traffic-signal times based on real-time data and current traffic conditions, optimizing system performance.

Better traffic management also enhances local air quality by reducing the time cars and trucks spend idling. In addition to the obvious benefits associated with more effective use of traffic signals to minimize traffic jams, the project’s installation of turn lanes at approaches also will improve safety for pedestrians.

City of traffic lights

NYCDOT installed 100 microwave sensors and 32 traffic video cameras to measure traffic volumes and congestion in the designated 110-block section of Manhattan. In addition, NYCDOT installed E-ZPass readers at 23 intersections to anonymously record vehicle travel times.

The combined data of traffic volume and travel times are transmitted wirelessly to the JTMC, where engineers can quickly identify congestion choke points as they occur and remotely adjust traffic-signal patterns to clear jams and reduce the chances of their recurrence.

NYCDOT engineers use recently upgraded traffic-signal-control systems to adjust the traffic lights. The agency will monitor vehicle travel times, delays, volumes and congestion to determine how best to use the technology and add to the expanded menu of signal patterns to address the wide variety of traffic conditions in midtown. Eventually, the real-time traffic-flow information could be made available to motorists and app developers to be used on personal data assistants (PDAs) and smart phones.

Earlier generations of traffic signals could be reliably set to adjust to predetermined signal patterns based on the time of day, leaving limited ability to respond to crashes, construction and special events like the U.N. General Assembly. Now when congestion saturates the network, causing backups that block cross streets and crosswalks, Midtown in Motion allows DOT engineers to make real-time analysis and change signal patterns at the touch of a button, helping to alleviate congestion before it worsens.

Depending on the situation, engineers can adjust traffic lights to provide a more even distribution of vehicles entering midtown, so congested areas do not become oversaturated and priority can be given to clearing isolated backups resulting from breakdowns, fender-benders or double-parked vehicles.

On the avenues, engineers also can switch between a simultaneous signal pattern, where all the signals turn green or red at the same time, or a traffic-signal progression, which lets vehicles traveling at the speed limit to encounter green lights as they drive along a corridor, allowing engineers to use the more effective pattern based on measured traffic conditions. Midtown in Motion has brought turn lanes to 53 intersections, allowing vehicles to turn from cross-town streets onto the avenues without blocking an entire lane of through traffic. It also added turn signals at 23 of these intersections to allow turning vehicles to do so without conflicting with pedestrians.

Over the past 18 months, the NYCDOT upgraded 7,198 traffic-signal field controllers to advanced solid state traffic controllers (ASTCs) citywide with the goal of upgrading all of the city’s 12,446 signals by 2013. ASTCs are state-of-the-art computerized devices whose primary function is to control traffic signals at the intersection. This generation of traffic controllers is more weather-resistant and tamper-proof, requires less maintenance and allows the NYCDOT to communicate wirelessly through the New York City Wireless Network (NYCWiN) to the traffic-management center and devices such as microwave sensors.

NYCDOT engineers use recently upgraded traffic-signal-control systems to adjust the traffic lights. The agency will monitor vehicle travel times, delays, volumes and congestion. (©

Federal roles out

FHWA works closely with state and local governments to speed the deployment of new, promising and under-used technologies. That is one of the pillars of an innovation initiative launched by Mendez called Every Day Counts. The adaptive-signal-control technology at the heart of the Midtown in Motion system is one of the technologies being advanced through Every Day Counts. Mendez is hoping to see more cities use adaptive signal control in order to realize the same benefits New York is looking to achieve: less congestion and less time spent idling at traffic lights.

President Obama also emphasizes innovation as one of the key elements of our nation’s plan to “win the future,” along with out-building the competition. This is another area where Every Day Counts plays an important role, as it provides states with a number of initiatives designed to help them deliver major transportation projects sooner so the public realizes the benefits sooner. It is another example of how FHWA supports its partners in meeting the nation’s transportation needs.

In New York, FHWA provided $16 million in funding for the construction of the traffic-management facility in Queens, which opened in November 2008. JTMC is one of more than 200 traffic-management centers across the country funded by the FHWA to manage changing traffic conditions in large cities and, in some instances, dispatch emergency-incident responders to help mitigate medical emergencies on the nation’s roadways.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood refers to these traffic-management centers as “silent sentinels that are helping people get to work, get home and get to soccer games and dance recitals while spending less time stuck in traffic.” (You can read LaHood’s take on the Midtown in Motion program on his blog, Fast Lane, at​.gov/2011/07/reduced-congestion-and-safer-pedestrians-in-new-york-city-thanks-to-midtown-in-motion.html.)

For this particular program, FHWA provided $1.2 million of the project’s $1.6 million total costs through the FHWA’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program.

The CMAQ program was conceived to support surface transportation projects and other related efforts that contribute air-quality improvements and provide congestion relief. Jointly administered by FHWA and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the CMAQ program was reauthorized under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) in 1998 and most recently in 2005 under the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU).

Under SAFETEA-LU, the program has provided just under $9 billion in authorizations to state departments of transportation, metropolitan planning organizations and other project sponsors for a growing variety of transportation-environmental projects.

FHWA Administrator Mendez (left) with N.Y. Mayor Bloomberg (center) and NYCDOT Commissioner Sadik-Kahn pressing the button to start the new system.

Breakup is key

Midtown in Motion is not just about getting travelers from Point A to Point B faster. It is about reducing congestion, reducing emissions, improving air quality and improving safety for drivers and pedestrians who travel throughout Midtown each and every day.

Although the program is still in its infancy, NYCDOT expects that the added benefits will soon become apparent to all and the overall quality of life for New York’s citizens will be improved as a result.

“This new state-of-the-art system will let New York City show how major cities can reduce traffic congestion and improve pedestrian safety,” said LaHood.

“Innovative systems like this one help keep America moving,” said Mendez. “Combining real-time data on traffic speed and volume with more strategic use of traffic signals helps to eliminate choke points as they emerge. The benefits are real and immediate for drivers and pedestrians alike.” TM&E

About The Author: White is social media/web content coordinator at the FHWA’s Office of Public Affairs. Lomax is a writer/editor at the FHWA’s Office of Public Affairs.