Intelligent data streamlines city traffic

A common complaint in Toronto, and most large cities, is that commute times are too long. For car drivers who commute in to a big city or even for drivers who commute within the city, the average commute time is 80 minutes total for a day.

Blair Currie, vice-president of marketing at Intelligent Mechatronic Systems (IMS), thinks this ties traffic, in a direct way, to both prosperity and happiness. “The more we can reduce gridlock, the better prosperity there will be (and) the more jobs will be created,” he said.

Currie said that when employees can’t get to work on time, appointments are postponed, productivity (and therefore money) is lost and people lose precious time with their families. While large-scale overhauls to roads are a nice idea, theoretically, for a lot of bigger, established cities, he said it’s just not feasible. More likely, streamlining that traffic is the most effective solution.

Waterloo Ont.-based Intelligent Mechatronic Systems Inc.’s  IMS Transportation Intelligence gathers data on traffic through a number of resources including cell phone pings. “We collect all the cell phone signals from cars only. We collect all kinds of cell phone signals but we’re able to determine the number of cell phone signals across the GTA, for instance … we get 4 billion data points a day,” he said. Those data points allow IMS to map traffic with data that is never more than five minutes old, Currie said.

Shunkar Manoharan, director of product management at IMS, said the technology uses data from the Rogers network, whom IMS has partnered with in Ontario, to track pings from cell phones to the cell towers. “Behind the scenes, cell phones are constantly talking to the cell towers saying, “I am here, I am here,” so the network, as you’re moving or driving in the network, knows where to transfer to the next cell tower, and then the next cell tower, so you don’t have a disconnect,” Manoharan said. “On an active call, that communication with the cell tower happens twice every second. It’s that data that we’re actually capturing.”

“We overlay (that data on a) grid map so we can show how many pings are going a day, how many pings are going a second. We’re able to calculate the amount of traffic in that space,” Currie said.

The data can be helpful to companies who manage large fleets of trucks or employees who want to get to work on time, or quicker. But IMS is particularly interested in selling its software to governments so that cities, and hopefully whole provinces, can improve congestion overall. “We offer them a fully lit-up city” Currie said, ”and we’re looking to offer a fully lit-up province if the province buys into this.”

IMS can also be used to help reroute traffic in the event of an emergency road closure. “This is what this message is, how intelligent data can not only increase prosperity, but solve problems,” Currie said. “It will allow us to solve, in the event of an emergency or a road closure, know how to redirect traffic and be able to satisfy people’s needs to get to work (on time).”

Bruce Zvaniga, director of transportation services for the City of Burlington and former manager of urban traffic control systems for the City of Toronto, said cities are sometimes left with few options for drastically changing road layouts. Traffic data, like the data IMS provides, could, however, help fine-tune strategies to keep traffic moving in an old infrastructure. “What is key here is figuring out, with this data, how to move those people that are still in cars, and to fine-tune the network so that transit can move effectively as well,” he said.

Currie said that IMS’s Transportation Intelligence is available as a subscription service and was recently bought on a three-year contract by York Region in Ontario. Pricing is dependant on the area included in the capture.

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