Traffic management system to be tested on homecoming crowd
Drivers in Champaign-Urbana might notice something unusual this Saturday: more than 100 University of Illinois students stationed on street corners throughout the city, counting cars and recording their movement on smart phones. The students will be helping transportation researchers in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Coordinated Science Laboratory test an innovative new system that monitors traffic congestion and can provide valuable, real-time information to police, emergency personnel and the public with the goal of helping traffic flow more smoothly during major events.
Using their cell phones and a specially designed application, the students will document traffic surrounding the Illinois-Indiana football game. It is the most massive deployment to date of the system researchers call TrafficTurk, which promises to revolutionize traffic monitoring during extreme congestion events, says Assistant Professor Dan Work, who is leading the project.
“For three hours on Saturday morning, our team will turn the streets of Champaign-Urbana into one of the most densely instrumented cities in the country,” Work says. “The project will demonstrate that it is possible to instantly deploy a temporary traffic sensor system to provide an extremely high resolution view of real-time traffic conditions.”
For decades traffic engineers have relied on manual data collection on surface streets, using tools called turning movement counters. The devices are expensive, though, and municipalities could never afford to give them to hundreds of people at once for real-time monitoring, Work says. TrafficTurk employs an application that essentially turns a smart phone into a turning movement counter. The application can be downloaded from a website and utilized by as many people as necessary, depending on the size of the event. The information recorded can be made immediately available.
“Anybody with a phone can do it—the hardware cost is now removed,” Work says. “You still need to pay people to collect data, but you can collect it at every intersection simultaneously, and it can be used to generate state-of-the art traffic analytics to enable better real-time traffic management.”
The system’s name was inspired by a chess-playing machine from the 18th century called the Mechanical Turk, which was secretly controlled by a world-class chess expert hidden inside. As with that machine, Work says, the secret to TrafficTurk’s success is the people who operate it.
“For event-driven congestion, TrafficTurk incentivizes users to collect data at scales which are not possible using today’s technology,” he says.
For Saturday’s event, approximately 120 students will be participating—102 will be stationed on street corners in and around the campus area, with the densest concentration of them on Lincoln Avenue, Neil Street, St. Mary’s Road and Green Street from the hours of 8 a.m.-11a.m. An additional 20 students and researchers will be supporting operations at Newmark Civil Engineering Laboratory.
Work’s hope is to deploy the system with ever-bigger events—for example the Chicago Marathon.
“Eventually I’d like to see event-driven traffic congestion monitored and managed efficiently, anywhere in the world,” he says.