How Fort Collins is trying to improve your commute

Thinking Highways
By Thinking Highways July 25, 2016 19:50 Updated

How Fort Collins is trying to improve your commute

Next time you’re grinding your teeth at a turn signal, clenching the steering wheel as you watch that evil arrow cycle from red to green to red again, remember this:

It’s not just you. Fort Collins traffic congestion has never been worse.

The volume of traffic is at an all-time high, the city’s busiest intersections have gotten even busier and people are driving more than ever.

What’s more, the exhaust that snakes out of all those tailpipes makes up about a quarter of community greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to rising temperatures and some of the nation’s highest smog-causing ozone levels.

City leaders are working to rein in congestion and vehicular emissions so they can tackle Fort Collins’ climate action goals and make the Choice City a better place to live.

While an interdepartmental team pores over data and sorts through a pile of strategies to ease Fort Collins congestion and emissions, three main approaches are emerging:

• Upgrade roads and traffic signals. Cutting-edge Bluetooth and video technologies now enable the city to measure travel time and intersection volume like never before, allowing staff to pinpoint the intersections and signals that are frustrating drivers most. Targeting these areas with capital projects and experimental traffic signal technology could have a big impact.

• Reduce the use of vehicles. Fort Collins hopes to get there by building more protected bike lanes, increasing the allure of public transit and providing incentives for other forms of travel.

• Convince people to buy electric cars. The city has a lofty goal for electric vehicle purchases, and if a budget request gets funded, they’ll start funneling money in this direction next year.

Here’s how your commute is about to become more bearable.

Using Bluetooth data to better track delays

Inside a nondescript building on Linden Street, traffic engineers sit before a ginormous computer screen that displays live feeds of Fort Collins’ 18 busiest intersections via 42 cameras. The goal: to help traffic flow as smoothly as possible during the morning and afternoon rush hours and on special occasions.

Cameras mounted on traffic lights at some intersections are used to help staff identify and rectify the increasingly tricky traffic problem of too many cars, too little intersection capacity.

Traffic signals run on pre-programmed schedules based on the time of day. But in real time, staffers at the operations center can do things like lengthen a light cycle to clear out traffic after a train crossing or car wreck. Complex models allow them to see how changing a signal — say, adding 10 seconds to a left turn arrow — will impact every other movement at the intersection, overall delay and total vehicular emissions.

And since late 2014, the Traffic Operations Center has collected Bluetooth data to monitor travel time on major roads. The anonymous data from cellphones and other devices becomes points on graphs showing average travel time and delays across the city.

“Bluetooth data doesn’t reduce emissions directly, but it lets us measure the impacts of projects and identify problems,” said Martina Wilkinson, assistant city traffic engineer.

Creating smart lights

Another new tool is video technology that provides real-time counts of cars passing through major intersections, an improvement from the old method of biannual manual counts.

A $380,000 budget request for 2017-18 could revolutionize the way Traffic Operations manages busy intersections.

The proposed pilot project, called an “adaptive signal control” system, would abandon the pre-programmed method and allow traffic signals to respond to traffic in real-time. It’s a more flexible approach that is ideal for high-volume streets.

If Traffic Operations gets the funding, the experimental system will be installed on Harmony Road from College Avenue east to Lady Moon Drive in 2017 and on Timberline Road from Harmony to Prospect roads in 2018. If the system works well, it could spread to other intersections.

Reducing congestion generally reduces emissions because it minimizes idling, but getting there can be tough. That’s partially because of intersection capacity but also because Fort Collins’ 184 traffic signals are unevenly spaced.

Lights favor north-south traffic

“We have a lot of signals in Fort Collins that don’t have good spacing, which makes it really difficult to get that two-way progression,” said Joe Olson, city traffic engineer. “It’s not that we’ve done something wrong, it’s just that the math doesn’t work.”

The spacing issue explains why one driver can sail through a mile-long stretch of green lights while a luckless motorist headed in the other direction might hit one red light after another.

The strategy is to reduce overall delay, so traffic engineers prioritize the highest-volume movements — usually drivers heading straight on major streets — over lower-volume movements like left-turns. For the same reason, engineers prioritize movement along higher-volume north-south streets over east-west streets.

“We’re trying to make the overall (delay) as low as we can, and that means the lower volume movements pay the price,” Olson said during a recent public tour of the Traffic Operations Center. “I’m sorry if you’re in that left-turn lane, but just know it’s for a greater good,” he added amid groans from the tour group.

One of the Traffic Operations Center’s main strategies to cut down on congestion is signal optimization, or analyzing traffic data and models to create the lowest-delay version of each intersection.

When packed intersections render signal optimization less effective, the city turns to capital projects, like the 2015 improvements to Timberline and Horsetooth roads.

The $4.5 million project took about five months and added extra turn lanes on Timberline in both directions, as well as a bike lane and right-turn lanes on Horsetooth. Since completion, overall delay at the intersection has decreased 35 percent — about 25 seconds per driver — during the 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. rush hour.

Intersection construction is underway on Prospect and Timberline, and future capital projects will likely focus on Fort Collins’ most-congested intersections. College and Horsetooth could be up next, Olson said.

The story continues below this map

Thinking Highways
By Thinking Highways July 25, 2016 19:50 Updated