Sunny & safe

May 2, 2018

Orange County, Fla., improving travel times and public safety with connected intersections

While tourists scream through Disney World’s Space Mountain and stroll the faux Parisian streets of Epcot Center, officials at the Orange County Department of Transportation have to worry about how all those people are going to get around the greater Orlando area—not to mention how to manage the traffic network for the people who live there.

While Orlando’s urban areas get the bulk of the traffic volume, traffic managers also have to keep things running smoothly in outlying areas of the county where many of those hospitality workers live and new developments cause growing traffic volumes and congestion. Monitoring intersections in those areas, which can be more than 30 minutes from the central office in Orlando, has always been a challenge for the transportation department. When there was a problem with a traffic signal in one of those remote areas, often first reported by a disgruntled driver stuck at a flashing red light, a technician had to hop in a truck and drive out to the intersection to inspect the traffic cabinet. It was time-consuming and put additional stress on the understaffed organization.

“Like most public agencies, we are usually stretched thin and we typically have several vacancies for technicians,” said Hazem El-Assar, chief engineer at the Orange County Traffic Engineering Division. “Sending someone out to a traffic cabinet 30 or 45 minutes away was not how we wanted to use those limited resources.”

More than 90% of Orange County traffic signals are connected to a fiber-optic network, so intersections can be monitored and managed from the TMC in Orlando.

Finding an alternative to fiber

More than 90% of Orange County traffic signals are connected to a fiber-optic network, so the intersections can be monitored and managed from the traffic management center (TMC) in Orlando, El-Assar said. However, laying fiber is expensive and often requires tearing up roads and disrupting traffic. Installing fiber lines in the remote areas of the county was too expensive, so officials began exploring options to connect the signals to the TMC via cellular networks. They also knew that they wanted to prepare for a future in which traffic engineers can use data to improve travel times, increase travel-time reliability and improve public safety, so they went looking for solutions that could go beyond simple connectivity. They wanted to meet today’s needs with data and be future-proof.

The Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Everyday Counts Initiative highlights the use of Automated Traffic Signal Performance Measures (ATSPMs) as one of the techniques to achieve the goal of using data to improve performance, and Orange County had received $3.4 million in federal funding to upgrade its traffic management system, including communication between remote signals and the TMC.

According to the FHWA: “ATSPMs consist of a high-resolution data-logging capability added to existing traffic-signal infrastructure and data analysis techniques. This provides agency professionals with the information needed to proactively identify and correct deficiencies. They can then manage traffic-signal maintenance and operations in support of an agency’s safety, livability and mobility goals.”

ATSPMs promote safety by shifting from reactive to proactive operations and maintenance practices that reduce traffic congestion resulting from poor and outdated signal timing. They improve maintenance operations by providing actionable information needed to deliver the best service to customers, with significant cost savings to agencies. And they improve operations because active monitoring of signals enables agencies to fix problems before they become citizen complaints.

Besides administering the federal funding, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) played an important role helping the county figure out just how to connect its traffic signals and eventually reach the visionary goal of leveraging data to improve performance, said Jeremy Dilmore, an FDOT engineer who worked on the project.

“While the result is better planning and signal timing, in the bigger picture our goals are improved safety, efficiency and usability,” Dilmore said. “Transportation has a big impact on the livability of a community, so what we’re doing in Orange County goes beyond safety to really building community.”

The challenge for Orange County was finding a vendor that could provide technology to collect the data, ensure its security and convert the raw data into actionable information. After some research, the agency ultimately contracted with Miovision Technologies.

Quick & easy

Transportation officials had started by identifying 20 intersections in outlying areas to the east and north of Orlando, as well as a “fiber island” to the southwest, that they wanted to connect because new developments in those areas were leading to many new homes and increased traffic.

Traffic cabinets typically have three key elements:

  • A traffic controller, a piece of hardware about the size of a desktop computer that is the main brain of the cabinet and controls the red, green, yellow sequence of the lights;
  • A detection rack, which pulls information from camera feeds or sensors to detect when vehicles are present and determine when to change the lights; and
  • A conflict or malfunction monitoring unit to ensure that the lights don’t conflict and order them to all flash red as a safety measure if there is a problem.

Miovision SmartLink devices were installed in traffic cabinets to monitor and adjust the controllers from the TMC, as well as pull the data that the transportation department will eventually use to improve performance. It took technicians only about an hour to install the devices at each intersection.

The “fiber island” proved to be a particularly interesting situation. The term “fiber island” refers to a network of 10 traffic signals connected to each other by fiber, but none of those signals were connected to the larger network or the TMC. By installing a SmartLink at one intersection, the county got the benefit of having all 10 intersections connected to the TMC. That by itself saved the county millions of dollars that it would have otherwise cost to connect the island to the rest of the network. The cost to connect all 30 intersections was about $100,000.

“This was a big win for us,” El-Assar said. “Connecting the signals in this area was really important to us because of the new developments in that area, but we thought we were going to have to install devices at each intersection instead of just one. That was a huge savings.”

Traffic cabinets typically include a traffic controller, a detection rack, and a conflict or malfunction monitoring unit.

Where to go from here

Eventually, all intersections in Orange County will be connected to the network, so they can be monitored and managed from the TMC, but that will be several years down the road. In the meantime, the transportation department wants to find a way to start collecting data to improve efficiency and traffic flows, said El-Assar.

Orange County’s current controllers use proprietary technology that does not talk to other devices, so the data collected cannot be analyzed without special software from the controller company. El-Assar said there are tentative plans to upgrade the controllers or install additional devices that are compatible with National Transportation Communications for Intelligent Transportation System Protocol (NTCIP) standards, so the data is not locked in one system. Miovision’s technology is built on open architecture designed to give cities the flexibility they need to choose solutions that fit their infrastructure and do not limit future innovation. Open architecture avoids vendor lock-in while empowering third-party developers to use open data to create innovative solutions to age-old challenges.

MetroPlan Orlando, the regional transportation planning agency, is following examples from Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, as well as the Utah, Georgia and Virginia departments of transportation, all of which have implemented ATSPM-centric traffic plans, Dilmore said. Data is critical to better decision-making, and Orange County transportation officials have big aspirations for a future where traffic plans can be automatically updated based on real-time conditions as data is fed into the system. Connecting 100% of the county’s traffic signals is a means to an end where drivers know with greater certainty how long it will take to get to work or home at the end of the day, and that they will be able to get there safely. Moreover, such connectivity lays the groundwork for more futuristic developments such as connected cars, which will be able to communicate with the infrastructure to know when lights are about to change or when there is a hazard ahead.

“The changes and investments we’re making now are setting us up for a future that we can’t necessarily even envision yet,” Dilmore said. “But the beauty of it is that there are very real benefits right away. Our residents don’t have to wait 10 or 20 years to see improvements in their daily lives. They are seeing them right away.”

About The Author: McBride is CEO and co-founder of Miovision.