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Do High-Tech Traffic Tools Work? Caltrans Hopes They’ll Ease I-80 Traffic Mess

| October 22, 2012
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A normal midday traffic snarl on westbound I-80 in Emeryville.

Bay Area drivers have some notoriously bad daily commutes, but if you’re looking for the stretch of freeway with top bragging rights, look no further than the Interstate 80 corridor through Richmond and Berkeley. Caltrans ranks it as the worst traffic in the Bay Area.

Now, Caltrans and regional transportation groups are kicking off an $80 million dollar project to improve that stat – not through new freeways lanes but through technology.

Weekday or weekend, the traffic is almost constant between the Carquinez Bride and Bay Bridge – as I found when I tried to get to the midday press conference about that very subject on Friday.

The coincidence wasn’t lost on Bijan Sartipi, director of Caltrans District 4. “There are 290,000 cars that travel through this corridor every single day. And every single what you see behind me does occur, which is congestion,” he says.

The numbers don’t lie – add up all the time lost by each car and it’s more than 7,500 hours of delay each day, not to mention the added air pollution. But with San Francisco Bay on one side and buildings on the other, there’s no room to widen the road.

“We can’t just keep building ourselves out of congestion. We have to better manage the traffic,” says Sartipi.

So, Caltrans is going high-tech.

Project number one: Install advanced metering lights at the on-ramps which space out the cars entering the freeway and give special preference to buses.

Project number two: Banks of signs over each lane of traffic displaying real-time information. “So what the drivers will see is actually more information about the lane that they’re driving in. If a lane is closed, you will see a red X mark in that lane.” That will move cars out of lanes with accidents. The signs will also have changing speed limits, so cars slow down more gradually to improve traffic flow.

Project number three: Traffic signal coordination with the main parallel route, San Pablo Avenue, so street traffic doesn’t back up there. All the systems will go through a main Caltrans information center.

Check out this video for more about how it will work:

Sartipi says when it’s all in place in mid-2015, the project should reduce travel time by 16 percent.

Will it really work? “People should be very grateful for these projects, because they’re going to make their life much easier,” says Alex Bayen of the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute for Transportation Studies. These real-time techniques have been proven in other countries, he says, which are actually ahead of the Bay Area in adopting them.

Just take the variable speed limits. “Conceptually it’s very easy for people to understand if you have a bunch of people running to certain point, you can see how that’s an unstable system. So if you’re preventing them from running that fast, you can see how you can smooth things out,” he says.

Bayen says these tools won’t solve traffic problems long term with the Bay Area’s ever-growing population. There’s a mathematical limit on the number of cars a freeway can handle.

But engineers have more tricks to try before giving in to gridlock: Someday self-driving cars could pick routes more logically than the most rational human.

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Category: Environment, Tech, Transportation

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer. Reach Lauren Sommer at lsommer@kqed.org.
  • Anonymous

    The technology is sound and very effective. Caltrans’ problem is not with concept but with implementation. In August, KTVU investigated the almost catastrophic failure of the vehicle detection devices Caltrans has installed throughout the Bay area to gather the real time data needed to make systems like these work – at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to California taxpayers. On top of that, the detection technology belongs to a local company who has employed former Caltrans executives, and Caltrans made sure that only this technology could be used, even though other, more reliable technologies were available. This situation led to a state Senate investigation in 2009. If Caltrans insists on using the same unreliable technology, you can be certain that these systems will fail, no matter how well intended they may be.