To improve your daily commute, the Minnesota Traffic Observatory (MTO) plays a major role behind the scenes, studying everything from busy intersections to electronic toll lanes. Safety is the lab’s top priority.
The observatory, which falls under the umbrella of the University of Minnesota’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute, is a high-tech transportation lab that develops tools for surveying, monitoring and managing traffic systems.
At any given time, the observatory can check out traffic on area highways through 16 live video feeds from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), says John Hourdos, director of MTO.
One of the lab’s specialties is collecting data, and it has designed several devices and systems to deal with specific traffic scenarios. For example, to investigate the I-35W/I-94 Commons freeway area in Minneapolis, which has long been one of the state’s highest crash sites, MTO installed networked video equipment on a few rooftops nearby, to capture traffic conditions day and night.
The system, which has been dubbed “the Beholder,” sends footage back to the lab through a high-speed wireless network. This system is innovative in part because “there is no other lab that has so much instrumentation permanently deployed in such an interesting place,” says Hourdos.
Armed with the lab’s results, MnDOT changed the freeway’s merge to an area where drivers have better visibility. “Before the dashed line started immediately after the merge point on the east side of the First Avenue overpass,” says Hourdos. “Now the double white line prohibits changing until you pass the overpass.”
As a result, in the first year of observation, MTO saw a 50 percent reduction in severe crashes involving three or more vehicles.
Another ongoing lab project centers on a roundabout, a circular type of intersection, in Richfield. Depending on the results, Hourdos says it could affect the national design standards for roundabouts.
MTO is also looking into the safety and pricing of the MnPASS HOV/HOT lanes. More broadly, the lab is building a simulation model of traffic around the Twin Cities to accurately “explore the effect of mass transit modes and technologies on the general traffic,” says Hourdos.
The high-resolution tool, which tracks individual vehicles, will be used to evaluate future transitway projects. “When you want to know what will happen to University Avenue after the light rail, you can get a good answer,” he says.
“You load [the simulation model] for the demand, for whatever time. The focus is on producing better travel times, so [planners] can improve their mode shift.”
Occasionally, the lab ventures outside of the state. Over the past five years, the lab has evaluated various transportation alternatives in Alaska’s Denali National Park. The park is trying to balance the impacts of more traffic on the natural environment. “If it produces too much dust and noise, it’s not natural,” says Hourdos.
At this stage in the process, the lab is working with the park to design a traffic operations system that will help it meet its goals.
Post by Anna Pratt, a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist