Faster And Safer Travel Through Routing and Advanced Controls
Brought to you by the Road Commission for Oakland County
FAST-TRAC: A new solution to an old problem
Oakland County, Michigan, is one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. Unfortunately, there simply isn't enough money available to build new roads or widen existing roads fast enough to keep up with the growth. As a result, many roads in Oakland County are congested. Faced with insufficient funds to adequately improve our roads, the Road Commission for Oakland County (RCOC) turned to technology, in the form of our FAST-TRAC program (Faster And Safer Travel Through Routing and Advanced Controls).
FAST-TRAC is a system that makes better use of existing roadways by employing advanced traffic management technologies to respond, in real time, to actual traffic flow, thus minimizing traffic tie-ups and improving safety on our roads.
It's important to note, though, that while FAST-TRAC can help to optimize traffic flow on existing roads, it cannot completely eliminate congestion. There is simply more traffic on many Oakland County roads than the roads can handle. FAST-TRAC helps to squeeze as much additional capacity out of existing roads as is possible. However, even with FAST-TRAC, because traffic is increasing every single day, some roads will still eventually have to be widened.
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How Does FAST-TRAC work?
Traffic patterns change constantly in most Oakland County intersections. Intersections that are packed at 4:30 in the afternoon are empty in the middle of the night. At some intersections, traffic is extremely heavy travelling southbound during the morning rush hour, light during the mid-day, and then heavy north-bound during the evening rush hour. In the past, traffic signals couldn't respond to real-time traffic conditions.
That's where FAST-TRAC is different. Here's how it works:
- Camera-like digital video imaging devices (known as Autoscope cameras) attached to poles at FAST-TRAC-equipped intersections detect vehicles approaching and continuously analyze traffic flow.
- The Autoscope devices instantly transmit the traffic flow information to a computer in a control box located at the intersection.
- The computer sends the information to a regional computer, which automatically adjusts the traffic signal to match the traffic flow. For example, the green cycle time in one direction can be extended, while the red cycle time is shortened, and the cycle lengths can change with each cycle based on traffic at any given moment.
- The regional computer monitors network-wide traffic flow and balances traffic flow along major corridors. For example, if there's an accident at one intersection, the regional computer will adjust traffic signals area-wide to accommodate the traffic backups caused by the accident.
- The seven regional computers are connected to a central management computer at RCOC's state-of-the-art Traffic Operations Center (TOC). From their desks, RCOC traffic engineers can monitor specific intersections or a whole region.
The system also includes diagnostic capabilities. With traditional traffic signals, many problems could only be fixed by a crew driving to an intersection and physically fixing the hardware. With FAST-TRAC, many problems can be repaired, via computer, from the RCOC TOC -- or even from a laptop computer with a modem.
The system also creates a database of traffic information, such as traffic counts, which, in some cases relieves local units of government from the need to do traffic counts and other studies.
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FAST-TRACing into the future
RCOC has been on the cutting edge of this technology, known as intelligent transportation systems (ITS), since the early 1990s. In fact, RCOC was one of the first federally funded test sites for this technology in the United States. Now, the expertise RCOC gained in developing its FAST-TRAC system is being used to help other communities around the country -- and around the world -- to develop "smart roads."
But RCOC is still on the cutting edge and we continue to develop our system. Ultimately, our central computer system (or transportation information management system -- TIMS) will automatically receive and share information (data and live video) about traffic conditions with the Michigan Department of Transportation.
And, eventually, the number of Oakland County intersections equipped with FAST-TRAC technology will grow to more than 1,100.
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When RCOC officials concluded in the mid-1980s that it was unlikely that there would ever be enough money to make all the road improvements (widening roads, constructing new roads, paving gravel roads, etc.) necessary to meet the traffic needs of Oakland County, they began searching for alternatives to traditional road construction projects. Their search led them to Sydney, Australia.
Faced with a similar situation (too much traffic, too few roads), the Road and Traffic Authority of New South Wales, Australia, in the 1970s, developed the Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS) to increase the efficiency of Sydney's road network. SCATS uses sensors buried in the intersection pavement to collect traffic flow information and control traffic signals to optimize traffic flow (RCOC has found that video image processing works better in Oakland County than sensors in the pavement, for a variety of reasons, including that buried sensors cannot be repaired during the winter in cold climates).
RCOC officials were impressed with SCATS' performance and, in 1991, RCOC embarked on a major effort to implement an ITS system in Oakland County. The result is the FAST-TRAC system.
Since the system's implementation, studies by such respected institutions as Michigan State University and Oakland University have documented improvements in traffic flow and safety on Oakland County roads where the FAST-TRAC system is installed.
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Where is FAST-TRAC?
The list of Oakland County communities in which FAST-TRAC has been installed is growing. The list currently includes:
- Auburn Hills
- Commerce Township
- Farmington Hills
- Hazel Park
- Madison Heights
- Orchard Lake Village
- Rochester Hills
- South Lyon
- Walled Lake
- West Bloomfield
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Note: FAST-TRAC is installed on major corridors and selected intersections in these communities; not at all intersections.