Smart Cities Aim to Solve Traffic Problems with Automation and the IoT

Pavement sensors, smart signals and self-driving shuttles are helping move traffic along.

Traffic congestion in the United States is the worst it’s ever been, and our roads aren’t faring any better. The toll on businesses, not to mention on vehicles, the environment, and human lives, is worth a little rubbernecking.

As cities begin to embrace “smart city” technology, much of it is aimed at solving traffic congestion and road problems. A handful of cities are testing self-driving cars. But more are trying out intelligent traffic signals and pavement sensors. And recently, some have been testing automated shuttle buses. Here are some highlights of what’s been happening.

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Smart traffic lights

Every city has one: the light that takes a lifetime to change. Metro areas such as Pittsburgh and Seattle are trying to end that headache with artificial intelligence systems that let traffic lights adapt to different conditions instead of relying on pre-programed cycles.

Back in 2012, Pittsburgh piloted Surtrac, an adaptive traffic control system, at 12 high-volume intersections. Surtrac uses cameras and radar devices, and works with other systems, to build a predictive model based on traffic patterns. By 2015, the program had expanded to 50 intersections and reduced travel times by more than 25 percent on average. It also resulted in 30 percent to 40 percent fewer stops, which translates to less damage to tires and roads.

Seattle, one of the America’s top 10 most congested cities according to a recent study, adopted a similar system, called Split Cycle Offset Optimization Technique (SCOOT), in August of last year. SCOOT works by detecting vehicles in every lane, adjusting the amount of time needed for traffic flow and adapting to conditions such as congestion from sporting events or concerts.

Automated shuttles

Las Vegas launched the country’s first autonomous shuttle on public roads last summer as part of a year-long pilot project called Hop On. The vehicle can transport up to eight passengers on a half-mile loop and will carry a safety driver. While the program is meant to help transport people through the city, it’s also being used to evaluate the public’s reaction to autonomous vehicles.

Detroit was the first city in Michigan to bring autonomous shuttles to public roads. May Mobility launched a fleet of autonomous shuttles in June to transport the 500 employees of the property management firm Bedrock to and from a parking garage.

Columbus is planning to launch a self-driving shuttle bus as part of the Smart Columbus initiative. According to, “Our purpose is rooted in Mayor Andrew J. Ginther’s belief that transportation is the great equalizer of the 21st century. We believe that by expanding access to transportation, we can improve access to jobs, education, healthcare and even healthy food and build ladders of opportunity in our community.”

Pavement sensors

Circling a city block trying to find a parking spot can be painful, especially when you’re trying to get to work. And doing so adds considerably to traffic congestion. Jacksonville and Sarasota have partnered with Streetline, a startup that promises to reduce parking woes for cities and businesses. Streetline installs one in-pavement sensor per block to give customers real-time parking occupancy info through the company’s app.

Boston, which also made the list of top 10 most congested cities in the United States, is hoping road sensors combined with cameras will help it eliminate traffic fatalities by 2030. The city partnered with Verizon in 2017 and has been collecting pedestrian, bike and car traffic data at one of the city’s most dangerous intersections. Verizon installed 50 cameras and underground magnetometer sensors that detect the number and size of passing cars, trucks and buses. The city will use the information to redesign its streets and determine whether new traffic patterns or bike lanes would be effective.

Cities such as Denver and Dayton, Ohio are using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags — thin devices, about 4 inches long and coated in protective plastic — to track and manage street repair data. The tags, made by the Dayton-based company CDO Technologies, are placed in the pavement when utility companies dig up the street to install things like sewer pipes or fiber optic lines. If not filled properly, those cuts in the street could sink or turn into a pothole. Investigators will be able to use the RFID tags to determine which company may be at fault. Dayton implemented RDIF tags in 2012 and in the first year saved $60,000 in labor, according to Dayton Daily News. The city of Denver announced it would license CDO Technologies’ RDIF tags in October of 2015.

Next time you’re walking the streets of one of these cities, or approaching a traffic light, take another look — you may catch a glimpse of what’s making that city smarter than others.

 Emily Canal is a staff writer at Inc. Magazine and has reported pieces for The New York Times, Boston Globe and Forbes. 

Top Image Credit: May Mobility

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