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The future of open city streets could start with smarter traffic lights

  • 5 mths ago

To realize a vision of bustling city streets shared safely and equitably among cars, bikes, buses, and pedestrians, one Pittsburgh company is focused on reinventing the humble traffic light.

DRIVE EAST along Baum Boulevard, a four-lane thoroughfare through Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, and you may notice something unusual. The road, like many in the largely up-and-coming area, passes auto shops, fast-food joints, brick warehouses, and parking lots that bleed into cookie-cutter luxury apartments and gleaming, glass-faced retail, including a Whole Foods and a Target. As you near the neo-Gothic spire of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church—towering over trendy restaurants, bars, and a Google office—you may start to realize that the lights seem to go in your favor. Red signals turn green, and green ones linger just long enough for you to slip through.

At each junction, a curbside controller cabinet is wired into the signal, and inside is a briefcase-size box made of brushed chrome. The container holds the components of the artificially intelligent Surtrac system, which makes decisions based on what it spies through the city’s traffic cameras. Short for Scalable Urban Traffic Control, it’s one of the first to gather information on vehicular flow and use it to adjust lights in real time—so-called adaptive traffic control. After installation at nine intersections in 2012, travel time dropped by 26 percent and time spent idling at red lights by 40 percent.

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