Since Thinking Highways launched in 2006, the role of the traffic control centre has changed. No more do operatives simply observe the traffic conditions on a video wall and act rapidly when incidences on the network occur. The TCC has undergone something of a metamorphosis, as Paul Hutton discovers.
If you’re managing a transport network, the chances are you’ll have a control room where at least some of that management takes place. But for many in the industry, the control room is some sort of mythical place that they rarely see and don’t understand.
So we at Thinking Highways thought we’d investigate what actually happens in a control room in 2014, how responsibilities have changed and what the future might look like. I spoke to representatives from four leading manufacturers of control room equipment, plus the heads of two control rooms, one in Europe and one in the US.
So let’s meet that European control room manager, first, Esmon George from the London Streets Traffic Control Centre, who explains that, despite it being one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world, London’s control room isactually relatively new:
“The key thing to recognize is that 10 or so years ago London didn’t have a 24/7 control room for the road network. So we started taking over roles and responsibilities from the police and other agencies to get involved in both coordinating the impact of planed events and roadworks but also to get a much better handle on traffic management issues, intelligence gathering, situational awareness and so on. I think that collective increase in capability from a standing start has been something of a gestational development over the last decade.”
Jason Sims runs the Kansas City SCOUT traveller information system in the US, which is unique in that it’s the only municipal traffic management organisation that spans two states, Kansas and Missouri (not very much of Kansas City actually lies in the State of Kansas). I asked him what his controllers do, and what they are tasked with achieving:
“They are responsible for taking calls from all Kansas and Missouri partners, which can include the media, law enforcement, fire service, citizens…we do have a complete customer service operation inside the traffic management centre and we disseminate information out so anything that has to do with traffic, anything that blocks a lane, anyone that would need roadside assistance, any maintenance activity for both States, they are populating our traveler information system and they are putting out traveller information on various platforms.
“To run a control room, you need equipment to allow you to monitor the traffic situation through CCTV and sensors, plus computers to allow controllers to do their jobs. Jupiter Systems is one of the companies that has been providing solutions for control rooms that allows organisations to gather visual information and display them on video walls and now mobile phones, tablets and laptops as well.”
Brady Bruce is Vice President for marketing and strategic alliances at Jupiter, and he says that when it comes to control rooms, it’s all about the bigger picture:
“Those systems allow traffic managers to see camera views of the roadways, to get volumetric data from in-road sensors and other types of telemetry that are describing the flow of traffic through a metropolitan area, a state, a province or even across the country. What we are seeing now is the increasing importance of those centres as multiple agencies are looking to coordinate their activities. We are now seeing those very same traffic control rooms being used to coordinate the activities of police, fire and emergency management services.”
Activu is a software and service company that makes software enabling network-based visualisation, allowing people to interact with equipment and each other, to make quick time-critical decisions. Vice President of Product Management, John Stark, says traffic control centres have unique requirements:
“The role of the control room within the traffic industry has been more and more control over changing message signs, understanding what traffic flows are like, making sure they can respond to differing traffic situations and be able to actually manage those traffic flows and more importantly inform the public about what is going on on the roadways. In an emergency situation they need to have contingency plans for things like natural disasters, evacuation plans. If something happens the city can actually move large parts of the populace from one place to another because of an impending natural activity.”
Esmon George explains that something not altogether dissimilar also happens in London:
“We can control half of London’s traffic signals from the control room and that is a lot of capability, coupled with the ability to see a lot of the road network through CCTV and having sharing agreements with local authorities so we can see their CCTV, we can see the national Highways Agency CCTV and although that’s a lot of visibility at any one time, with the right intelligence it does give us the ability to pinpoint issues very quickly.”
Rob Moodey is UK sales account manager for Matrox, a company providing equipment for control room walls, operators and the connectivity between them, including introducing dual-head workstations where operators have more than one screen in front of them. Although he agrees that the role of a control room is often misunderstood, he thinks it’s actually fairly simple:
“I think the clue is in the name! The people there want to influence what’s going on outside of where they are, in other words, to be in control. In some scenarios you can’t entirely control the events that are happening but you can respond to them and you can try to channel them, so in that sense the room is for situational awareness followed by the control of those resources that you can control. The traffic control room was, and in fact still is, the place where all these information sources are brought together and where the decisions are facilitated and I don’t think that particular aspect has changed since the very beginning.”
What has changed, according to John Stark, is the requirement for controllers not only to manage the traffic, but also to inform:
“Traditionally there wasn’t so much of a public-facing side to the organization. The reality was that they were bringing a lot of information in but not disseminating it in any way that was actionable to the outside world. I think today there is a very public face to all these traffic management centres – half of their purpose is to provide data to news agencies to allow people to see what their commutes are going to be like and what the traffic situation is going to be like on any given day.”
And in Kansas City Jason Sims is working hard to let the travellers know as much as they can. It certainly offers its citizens a wide range of critical traveller information of a number of platforms.
“We are populating several apps and Statewide maps, we have over 100 message signs and within two minutes of taking a call we try and get information out to the travelers. That information is automatically going to websites for both States, it’s populating the Kansas City Scout mobile app, it’s populating the City Scout website and we have what we call Traveler Information Alerts where we have 7,000 to 10,000 subscribers and they get real-time information sent directly their phones or computers.”
SHARING THE BURDEN
But it’s not only control rooms that now keep drivers informed of traffic conditions. Sat Navs, smart phone apps and private traffic information companies are gathering and distributing information, and social media allows people to share information with each other. So could we get to a point where we don’t actually need control rooms to manage traffic? Es George isn’t so sure:
“The move towards self-sufficiency is something we are working on, in changing the ethos from road users finding out what the traffic issues are when they get into their car to doing a bit of research before they start their journey but what wouldn’t happen without a traffic control centre is the ability to respond to the unexpected, so whilst you can have a certain amount of self-regulation in terms of decision-making and what journeys they take and where they make them, what they wouldn’t have is the layer on top of that which firstly coordinates the activity and secondly ensure a timely response to ensure services are back to normal.”
And John Stark and Rob Moodey agree we’re nowhere near the point where people can be self-sufficient:
“That does not eliminate the emergency situation, says Activu’s Stark, with fires or natural disasters, or actions of one sort or another that require planned activities to occur or plans to be set in stone by the agencies that are overseeing those roadways and need to execute them in coordination with the fire or police departments who are tasked with trying to keep the populace safe or move them in the right direction or not move if necessary. The control room’s function on a day to day basis might have slightly subsided because people now self-serve, however the role is still critical in places where the public simply can’t do that.”
Adds Moody: “Decisions that the individual travelers make only really relate to their own behaviour – the control room is trying to get a group response rather than an individual one. Individuals are influenced by the suggestions of others, whether that’s traffic announcements over the radio, satnav rerouting or even intelligent road signs that are changing as they are driving. The better this gets, the more effective those individual decisions are going to be. What happens behind those satnav reroutings or dynamic signs may well be algorithmic but it’s still going to emanate from a central traffic management function.”
Brady Bruce confirms that control rooms come into their own in emergency situations:
“What really become important in the decision-making process is having access to the best and most recent information and that’s the purview of the technology. It’s getting that information to the people that are going to have to make those critical decisions about how to reroute traffic.”
And he adds that information gathered from sat navs and apps such as Waze just becomes another source to help us manage the roads better:
“So here we have drivers running an application on their smartphone that’s providing information to them from other drivers on the road but remember that as a use of Waze I am allowing myself to be tracked. Here’s where I am. This is how fast I’m moving. This is how my speed on this particular stretch of roadway compares to others. This generates a tremendous amount of really useful information that could in fact serve the people that aren’t using that application. There’s an increasing interdependency on these crowdsourcing systems and the municipal systems that make both of them more important – not less.”
Barco delivers video walls, controllers and video wall management software. Strategic Marketing Director Guy van Wijmeersch agrees that people can’t really travel around efficiently without control rooms:
“When we look at real intermodal transportation where we want to go from point A to point B, using for example the bus and then renting a bike and really using all the possibilities, I think there’s still a long way to go. This is a service that a traffic control centre could look at, especially one located in a city where they can go outside of their own traffic medium.”
Bruce maintains that control rooms are now about much more than just managing traffic and that they come into their own when there’s a major incident:
“As traffic becomes more and more complex and as the requirements for governments to deliver more and more rapid service response, the traffic control room really becomes a centre for the coordination of an entire city’s services or that an entire province might administer so you can imagine a case where a large fire has broken up in a part of town, you have to get a lot of emergency vehicles on site, there are injured people so you have to get ambulances in, you need the police there to control the crowds…and this can be happening during the worst possible moment of the day, which is peak traffic right at the end of a workday. Being able to understand where the traffic is, how to get around it, to reroute the traffic around affected areas and to get the emergency vehicles and required personnel in place as quickly as possible means that there is more than just a requirement to manage the traffic. Coordination and service delivery is a crucial part of the process.”
Incident detection and management is something that Es George is already working with in London:
“London Streets Traffic Control Centre is part of a wider surface transport and traffic operations centre which we call the STTOC and that has three main elements to it. There’s the police control room for traffic and transport policing which works in very close partnership with Transport for London,called Metrocom; there’s TfL’s control rooms for London buses which oversees the operation of the 8000 or so buses on our road network, Centrecom, and there’s the LSTCC. The three of those operate the three main arms of what is actually an eight-sided structure which is the best way to describe it. On top of that we have what we call the Strategic Coordination Team whose role is to make sure that all the information is going out to the senior leadership team within the organization, together with some external stakeholders. ”
But he says there’s more that could be done, because for example refuse collection teams can have an effect on traffic that could be much better managed:
“They all have set routes and rather large trucks so we know there’s going to be a refuse vehicle on a certain part of the road network at certain times of the day but I have no visibility of that. That would be quite a powerful tool to have an equally I would argue that we don’t know what visibility the refuse collector’s have of network conditions. It may not be economically viable or practical to have vehicles sitting by the side of the road waiting for significant traffic issues to subside, if they are able to do that then they are not adding to the congestion.”
Jason Sims says collaboration has helped in Kansas City:
“Scout is a firm believer that you are only as strong as your relationships so we do have Kansas Highway Patrol located in our centre as well as Kansas City Police Department. Also we have CAD Integration where their computeraided dispatch is coming directly into our traveler information system and we have that established for six other law enforcement agencies. We also have a police and media hotline that comes directly into the traffic management centre so the police departments and media can call in – that number is used very frequently in the rush hours. The last option we have is that we have an interface where we disseminate all of our video to all of our partners. We have approximately 70 partners and as part of the application they can type in and communicate directly with our operators without having to pick up the phone.”
John Stark says that further integration of different agencies is possible, but do the various stakeholders have the will to do it?
“There are non-populated but ready-to-be-enabled emergency operations centres right here in New Jersey, for example, that regularly go through coordinated multi-disciplinary activities to make sure that when something occurs information and control and the right chain of commands is in place so everyone knows who to listen to and who to look for for information so they can better go about their business and serve the community that they are in. The question is more of a legislative one where in the US, and probably elsewhere, there’s a certain level of distrust in having too much surveillance being provided to the governing body.”
And Guy van Wijmeersch also believes that while conceptually it’s possible, he isn’t quite so sure that it’s desirable:
“Theoretically and technically it’s possible, yes. Does it make sense? I am not so sure. Mainly because keeping an infrastructure up and running, like an electricity grid or a highway, is still going to be an operational task. Will it improve the efficiency of the highway? Yes, but there would have to be a different control room that is focusing on the full customer experience.”
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