Winnipeg battles gridlock with help of Waze Connected Citizen’s program

The City of Winnipeg’s systems to monitor traffic have improved so much over the past three years that Jonathan Foord, a signals asset engineer in the transportation division of Winnipeg’s public works department, says they don’t need a helicopter to patrol anymore.

Replacing the helicopter is Waze’s Connected Citizens program and a series of wirelessly-connected, high-definition cameras providing visibility of more than 650 of the city’s intersections. The two are combined together in Winnipeg’s first-ever Transportation Management Centre, which started construction in 2015 with a $3.6 million commitment over two years. Staff monitor a real-time dashboard that imports data feeds from Waze, train crossings, and data from 311 and overlays it on a map.

When one of the driver-reported incidents from Waze requires closer inspection, staff can tap into one of the HD cameras mounted at the closest intersection and get a better look. It’s a system that’s so fast and accurate that Foord says they can now respond to situations in a timely manner and locate even what lane is affected.

“In times of crisis or when major events are occurring, we now have the time to know and act,” he says. “And with Waze we can communicate to our citizens when and when they need it. It’s a model that’s getting significant attention around the world.”

With Waze’s Connected Citizens program, the data flow is a two-way street between municipalities and their citizens. Traffic management centres of more than 600 cities globally are both using the crowd-sourced information reported via the Waze app (a navigation app that helps drivers follow the best route to their destination), and then reporting information back to it.

Waze Connected Citizens now global in scope

Waze started the program in October 2014 with just 10 cities, and has expanded it from there. The two-way traffic flow uses common open formats (Winnipeg uses XML and JSON for its feeds) and, more importantly, delivers updates on traffic information to cities that are faster and more detailed than previously possible. Not only are the city partners reacting to traffic problems more quickly, but they’re able to glean new insights about how to better design roads in the future.

In Canada, the Connected Citizens partners include cities such as Metro Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg; as well as the provinces of Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec. It’s delivered measurable impacts to partners from around the world, including in Boston, where congestion was reduced 18 per cent, and Ghent, Belgium as part of a traffic plan that reduced accidents by 30 per cent, according to Waze.

Waze sees benefits from the partnerships as well, says Mike Wilson, the country manager for Waze Canada. It receives information on where constructions crews will disrupt traffic and communicates that back to its users. So the app won’t suggest a driver take a shortcut, only to have them find out that the road is free of traffic because it’s been barricaded.

“Our mission is to save drivers five minutes every single day,” Wilson says. “The whole premise is that we can outsmart traffic together by helping to identify roadkill, potholes, and accidents.”

Waze users are prevented from reporting such incidents on the mobile app while they’re driving. But a passenger can enter the information, to avoid distracted driving.

Wilson has seen partners use Waze information for a number of initiatives. The City of Washington, D.C. used it to help with its 2018 “Potholepalooza” campaign, getting repair crews out on the most efficient route to patch reported potholes. Other cities have used the data to navigate emergency responders for the fastest response time possible.

“The crowdsourced methodology that Waze created cuts down on costs for cities,” Wilson says. “It’s much easier than installing cameras or sensors.”

Winnipeg’s ‘all-seeing’ eyes on the street

In Winnipeg, however, officials decided to do both. The city’s traffic monitoring cameras are capable of zooming in on objects that are as much as 3 km away, allowing about 120 cameras to cover the majority of the city’s main roadways. Not only have these cameras been key in verifying incident reports and hazards on the road, but in determining the best timing configurations for traffic lights. This comes from being able to ask questions that just weren’t possible before.

“What are our worst intersections?” Foord gives as an example. “Now we have more detailed information because it’s not just what gets reported to our public insurance agency.”

Winnipeg also alerts its residents about traffic slowdowns caught on camera by posting the visuals to its Twitter account.

In addition to the cameras, which are connected to the Bell MTS wireless network via LTE modems to relay footage back to the traffic management centre in real time, signal lights have also been connected. Now instead of having one engineer assigned to adjusting analogue signal technology at one-third of the city’s intersections, there are five engineers on staff that are able to open a laptop and make a change to signaling immediately.

The next step for Winnipeg is to investigate if the footage from its cameras can be used to detect near-misses of collisions in addition to the reported incidents. That could help make changes to remedy risky areas before accidents ever occur, Foord says. The city is working with local universities on pilot projects to investigate this.

It’s also working to find ways to automate some of the tasks that the new Traffic Management Centre is completing during its business hours – 6 AM to 7 PM, Monday to Friday.

One thing it’s not doing anytime soon is hiring a new helicopter pilot.

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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