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Houston streets are about to get smarter


Drivers can say a lot about Houston’s streets. They’re bumpy, crowded and stretch for miles into the far reaches of the metro area.

In a few months, they also just might be the smartest streets in the country.

Houston City Council on Wednesday will consider a $33.6 million contract – partially funded by a $10 million federal grant – to add hundreds of traffic-tracking devices across the city so officials can receive better up-to-date information, respond by adjusting traffic signals and provide current conditions to drivers more quickly.


Freeways in most major cities have traffic detection, cameras and changeable message signs to warn drivers of tie-ups around the area. Some cities also have used the systems along specific corridors.

Houston is taking that approach citywide, optimistic an integrated system can improve traffic, and show drivers their best route choices via signs and traffic maps.

“The ability to visually verify incidents and alert drivers to travel times on parallel alternate arterial and freeway routes will be a benefit,” said Tony Voigt, a Texas A&M Transportation Institute researcher based in Houston. “The ability to better detect vehicles at signals and use that data for signal timing updates at more frequent intervals – and in real-time, if necessary – will be a benefit.”

Proving that, however, can happen only after the devices are in place.

“We have ‘before’ data and we will get ‘after’ data,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works in charge of traffic operations and maintenance. “No one has really done this on this large of scale. That is part of why the federal government gave us this money.”

Voigt, whose office assisted with some of the research for the grant proposal, agreed.

“Will the benefit be as large as compared to freeway (traffic systems)?,” Voigt said. “I would say maybe not, but the benefits should still be considerable.”

Based on federal data, he noted about half the miles traveled in urban areas happen on local roads – not freeways or major highways – so anything aimed at more accurate data for those roads naturally will benefit drivers.

All of the new technology will be integrated into existing traffic operations controlled by Houston TranStar, which combines resources from the city, Harris County, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

For Houston drivers, many accustomed to checking traffic information online via TranStar or online maps such as Google or Apple Maps before beginning their commutes, more data can mean fewer surprises.

“The more, the better,” said Doug Walton, 44, a computer technician who commutes to Greenway Plaza from near Missouri City daily. “If there’s a quicker way, I’d like to know.”

More information also helps the city plan, with more recent traffic counts and detailed data that could help officials rethink how traffic lights are timed and possibly even schedule construction for times when traffic would be predictably lighter.

As commuting changes when local schools are in session, Weatherford theorized, construction or repaving projects could be targeted to when traffic is lower in the summer along core routes.

The city, which like the entire region is seeing an increase in traffic and has limited options other than using existing streets more efficiently, has been developing a broader plan for smarter streets since at least 2012. In 2014, Houston won a competitive Federal Highway Administration grant for $10 million as part of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program that has funded many projects deemed innovative or critical to improving national transportation.

Officials expect the entire project will take 30 months to install. Houston’s contribution, $23.6 million, will come from the city’s share of the 1 percent sales tax levied by Metro, which gives a quarter of the tax back to municipalities for transportation projects.

Transcore, the lowest qualified bidder on the job, will maintain the system for two years, akin to a warranty period on electronics. The company has a number of local contracts, notably as the managers and developers of the tolling systems used by Harris County Toll Road Authority, Texas Department of Transportation and Metro’s HOT lanes.

The types of equipment can be divided into two categories: Devices such as cameras and traffic sensors that relay real-time information to traffic managers; and electronics that transmit that information to drivers, such as the cameras and databases relayed to Houston Transtar’s website and even Google and Waze, the popular traffic app.

The most visible part of the project to motorists will be 91 dynamic message signs along major city streets, often near where they intersect freeways. Six of the signs – a common sight on Houston freeways – will be along streets crossing U.S. 290 between Loop 610 and the Sam Houston Tollway. Others will dot remaining Houston freeways, as well as pop up at major intersections, such as two planned for Bissonnet and Dairy Ashford.

Officials divided the city into 16 zones and will focus on the areas one at a time. The starting point has not been determined, Weatherford said. As items are installed – something officials think could take a few weeks – they will integrate into the system.

“The intent is not to get it all done and turn it on,” Weatherford said.

From TranStar, the information will make its way to traffic maps and route planning sites, such as Waze, which relies on reports from users and publicly available traffic data.

Devices will be spread across the city, in targeted locations where officials believe better response to changing traffic conditions and more driver awareness could help ease traffic congestion.

Sally Rabe, 41, who “religiously” checks Waze, said more information would help, though she worries Houston is putting too much faith in computers to cure traffic.

“We need more buses,” Rabe said, “not smarter drivers.”



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