Toronto’s electronic eyes keep traffic flowing

Entering the dimly lit room at Toronto’s Traffic Management Centre, the first thing that pops out are the television monitors.

Dozens of them, stacked three sets high, rounded against the contour of the wall.

Displayed on the monitors is nearly every inch of the city’s highways, like an Orwellian vision come to life. But Torontonians need not fear: this big brother is here to help.

Bruce Zvaniga manages Toronto’s urban traffic control systems. His office—which looks quite unlike any traditional definition of the word— is one of the most crucial components in keeping Toronto’s highways moving.

“Much of the city is fairly close to capacity,” he said.

Zvaniga describes an analogy in which a glass of water signifies the city’s traffic capacity.

“If the glass is full, the smallest disruption can have big consequences. If the glass is half full then you have a lot more room for (things to go wrong) without spilling the water.”

Using this framework, he says that for each minute that a highway lane is down, a 10-minute disruption is the norm for motorists. And therein lays the importance of the traffic control centre.

In a nondescript building in North York, a small team of people sit in front of the bank of monitors.

They are Toronto’s eyes in the sky.

They manoeuvre joysticks to swivel the cameras around and zoom in on trouble spots for a better look. Often, they’re the first to notify the police of any developing problems on the roads.

The electronic signs that display information to motorists on the highways are also controlled here. The team can’t fix the city’s routinely jammed problem spots, but they can help to divert and advise traffic.

Still, some spots are seemingly doomed to congestion.

“The interchange where the Don Valley Parkway, 404 and 401 come together is routinely congested, and that’s simply because you have all those roadways coming together,” he said.

So while some things may never change when it comes to managing Toronto’s traffic, others already have over the course of Zvaniga’s 26 years with the city.

“When I started with (Metro Toronto), there was still talk about building our way out of congestion,” he said.

“Where now there’s this recognition that we can’t; we have to be smarter about how we build our roads and encourage transit.”

Another major change Zvaniga has seen seems relevant given the rash of pedestrian deaths over the past month in Toronto. It may be hard to see at times like these, but Toronto has focused on improving pedestrian comfort for the last several years, he said.

Pedestrian crossing lights last for longer than what was once standard, for example.

And innovations such as the scramble crossing at Yonge and Bloor and Yonge and Dundas streets have been a “huge success,” Zvaniga said.

“We did get some complaints from motorists in the first six-to-eight weeks,” he said. “What tends to happen is that motorists find an alternate route.”

And if that route happens to involve a highway? Then you can bet that Zvaniga and his team will be watching out for you.

Eyes in the sky.

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