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City's New High-Tech Traffic System Hopes to Break Midtown Gridlock

By Jill Colvin | July 18, 2011 2:34pm
Inside the Department of Transportation’s traffic management hub in Queens, where real-time data is analyzed.
Inside the Department of Transportation’s traffic management hub in Queens, where real-time data is analyzed.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MANHATTAN — The city rolled out a new weapon Monday in its battle against Midtown gridlock.

The new “Midtown in Motion” traffic management system will use a combination of microwave motion sensors, cameras, E-ZPass readers and other gadgets to provide traffic signal engineers with real-time data on traffic patterns.

Officials hope the data will allow engineers to better respond to changing street conditions with new wireless signal-changing technology by re-directing traffic around crashes, construction and other backups along the city’s most congested routes.

“Midtown is the heart of New York City’s economy, traffic is its lifeblood, and we’re about to get that blood flowing even more efficiently using communications technology,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters at the Department of Transportation’s traffic management hub in Queens, where traffic cameras feed live information about road conditions.

The new system "will allow engineers to quickly identify congestion choke points as they occur" and then "remotely alter traffic signal patterns to begin to clear up midtown jams at the touch of a button," he said.

Up until now, the signal grid has relied on pre-programmed patterns that vary by time of day, but can't easily be changed based on real-time conditions.

The $1.6 million system has now been installed through a 110-square-block grid between Second and Sixth avenues and between 42nd and 57th streets. The roll-out includes 100 microwave sensors designed to detect vehicle backup at traffic lights, 32 video cameras, and E-ZPass readers at 23 intersections to measure average traffic speeds.

More than half of the city’s nearly 12,500 traffic signals have also been retrofitted with the new wireless technology, officials said.

Bloomberg said the new coordinated system represents a "quantum leap forward'" in traffic technology in the city, and said he hopes it will make a significant difference on city roads.

Still, officials remained vague about precisely how traffic patterns might be altered to respond to events like crashes as well as the how pedestrian crossing times might change.

The city intends to spend the next six months testing the system, and will use GPS data from taxis to compare before-and-after travel times, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said.

Some estimates have found that congestion costs the city as much as $13 billion a year in lost time, costs, wasted fuel, lost revenue, jobs and economic output.

That doesn't include the cost of treating conditions like childhood asthma, which the city has linked geographically to roadways with high congestion.