Inside the city’s Roads Operations Centre

Driving in Calgary can be frustrating.

Most drivers are familiar with the seemingly endless maze of intersections, the bottlenecks on Deerfoot and the sneaking suspicion that traffic lights are synchronized to make any commute feel like an eternity.

All of the above factor into what must be one of the most thankless jobs in the city.

At the Roads Operations Centre, engineers and technicians work round-the-clock to attempt the impossible: make the commute in Calgary painless.

Just off Spiller Road in the southeast, the Roads Operations Centre acts as the nerve centre for Calgary’s traffic: 80 cameras, almost 1,000 traffic lights, countless detour plans, electronic message boards and rush-hour lane reversals all fall under its scope.

Getting the green light

Wait times at traffic lights generate most of the 3-1-1 complaints that the centre receives, and is the primary concern for those who work there.

Michael Gray, traffic engineer with the city, said that Calgary’s road network is “oversaturated,” and that traffic lights are programmed to respond to data collected in real time. Computers at the operations centre measure the volume of traffic at an intersection, along with the “occupancy” – or, the amount of time vehicles are waiting to pass through.The wall of monitors at the Roads Operations Centre display real-time footage of all of Calgary’s busiest intersections.
Photo by: Geoffrey Picketts

“Whenever a certain volume or occupancy is reached in one direction, the system automatically switches plans,” Gray said, adding that more green light time is then added to the backlogged road.

However, that is not any sort of solution. The intersection that generates the most complaints for Gray is John Laurie Boulevard and Shaganappi Trail in the city’s northwest. As Shaganappi gets backed up, more time will be pumped into those lights, but that only creates a backlog on John Laurie — a real lose-lose situation.

“There’s a lot of new development in that area,” Gray said. “The roadway was only designed to accommodate so much volume and we’re way over capacity at this point.”

For drivers familiar with that intersection it will be comforting to know that capacity is being added to Shaganappi Trail, with construction slated to begin this spring.

The project will see the completion of dual-left turn lanes and three thru lanes on Shaganappi in both directions.

If you build it, they will come

Road construction and accidents often result in detours for drivers. The words “Use Alt Route” flashing from electronic message boards, which are also controlled from the operations centre, have become a familiar sight for Calgary drivers.

When a detour plan is executed, green lights are prioritized to help accommodate the influx of traffic along the new route, with Barlow and Blackfoot Trail being the most commonly used whenever an accident occurs on Deerfoot Trail.

In practice, of course, the “accommodation” is only making the best of a bad situation, as neither of those roads is designed as a true substitute for the Deerfoot.

The dizzying number of roadside headaches might have some Calgary drivers looking to trade their keys for a bus pass. And that might not be such a bad idea.

Sameer Patil, lead supervisor at the Roads Operations Centre, keeps an eye over the workplace on a quiet day for traffic.
Photo by: Geoffrey Picketts
Sameer Patil, professional engineer with the operations centre, said that many routes now have “transit priority installments.” Public transit buses trigger special sensors that give additional seconds to green lights along the bus route.

The daily battle with gridlock

Lane reversals during rush hour along Memorial Drive and the Fifth Avenue S.W. connector are done manually, as the medians along those roads mean drivers could actually get stuck facing oncoming traffic, Gray said.

Computers tell the operations centre if the roads are clear before counter-flow begins during the morning and afternoon rush hours and, to date, no head-on collisions have occurred on those roads.

A lane-reversal-gone-bad is just another one of the many concerns of the operations centre.

In the “command post” of the Roads Maintenance Division, Robert Zafra keeps up with the latest news on weather, and how many sanding trucks are currently available.

“All of our bosses have an extensive military background, so we use a lot of military terms here,” he said, noting the heavy logistics that are involved with keeping the roads clear and ticking.

As a roads maintenance foreman, Zafra is primarily concerned with snowfall in the winter and construction in the summer — both unavoidable obstacles complicating the city’s traffic woes.

Zafra and Patil work in lockstep to ensure that detour plans are drawn up whenever a city crew needs to go on-site for maintenance purposes, such as fixing potholes or cleaning up debris on the road.

But in the end, the best that the operations centre can do is tread water as the tide of Calgary’s traffic rises.

“A signal is just a means to an end. The best option is more road capacity,” Gray said, referring to the backlogs that form behind traffic lights.

And until road capacity is able to keep up with the wants of Calgary’s auto-centric population, the operations centre isn’t expecting to receive less phone calls from drivers.

And they’re not calling to say “good job with the lights,” Gray said.

gpicketts@cjournal.ca