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Going Nowhere In Boston Traffic: Technology Makes A Difference

BOSTON (CBS) - Walk into the Boston Transportation Management Center and you get an eyeful of cityscapes on desk computers and wall-mounted TV screens.

"We're on the seventh floor of City Hall, and from this location we can monitor over 500 traffic cameras that are spread throughout the city, and what this allows us to do, we refer to as almost going to battle twice a day," says Tom Tinlin, Commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department.

Read: Going Nowhere in Boston Traffic – Entire Series

"The crux of what we do that gets a lot of our attention is the a.m. commute and the p.m. commute."

WBZ NewsRadio 1030′s Mary Blake reports – Part 9

Boston Traffic - Part 9

Tinlin's staff of six keeps tabs on traffic tie-ups all over Boston.

"So, if we're seeing a large amount of capacity on a certain roadway, from this center we can make a traffic signal timing adjustment to try to facilitate the movement of traffic," he told WBZ NewsRadio 1030.

Tinlin can't emphasize enough how effective these adjustments are.

"Without this tool, I would hate to imagine what the Innovation District would look like, what Boylston Street would look like, and how we would move people around this city," he said.

Transportation Management Center
Boston Transportation Management Center. (Photo from Mary Blake)

According to Tinlin, they average 130 adjustments daily and sometimes just three seconds longer makes a big difference.

"I think people feel as though it's just a bunch of traffic signals out there and there's nobody paying attention and that couldn't be further from the truth," he says.

The center also keeps tabs on double-parked vehicles that are notorious traffic stoppers. We watched as a UPS truck double-parked on Boylston Street.

"We'll try to give more time to Boylston Street to facilitate that move, but you can see this other UPS truck over here," as he points on the screen. "These are the constant battles. They want to make their deliveries as quickly as they can, but we can't have them mucking up our roadways," said Tinlin.

He says sometimes simple street markings can make a big difference.

35 intersections in Boston now have Don't Block the Box markings.

He brings a section of the Moakley Bridge up on the screen.  "As you can see from these hash marks, what you will see, regularly, on the p.m. commute, which now Boston Police are helping us with, is that these three lanes of traffic will all try to converge into one lane. You can't get three lanes into one lane without it crippling this intersection. So what happens is, nobody can get by to get to Atlantic Avenue. So by freeing this up, it allows Atlantic Avenue to flow freely all the way down to North Washington. Folks may want to go over the North Washington Street Bridge, Sullivan Square, Rutherford Avenue. You can also also pick up I-93 in that location as well," explained Tinlin.

Education also matters.

Take the South Boston waterfront. Tinlin says people there should be taking the B Street ramp.

"Everybody is so used to going Moakley Bridge to Atlantic Ave. People don't realize, hey wait a second, there's an on-ramp on B Street that will get me to I-93 North, South and the Mass Turnpike, and if you took that route as opposed to being on the Moakley Bridge, you'd save yourself a significant amount of time," says Tinlin.

With a federal grant in hand, the city is also working to procure two water shuttles to provide service between South Boston and East Boston. That should be in place next summer.

Tinlin adds, "I should point out that the communication between our center as well as the state's Emergency Operations Center is really tight. So, if we see something, we'll call them. If they see something, they'll call us."

The state's Highway Operations Center, the HOC, is an even larger operation which got started with the Big Dig.

It has more than 900 cameras positioned around Massachusetts.

Lorenzo Parra is the HOC Director.

"I like to call this place the nerve center, or the brain of the highway division. From this facility, we manage all aspects of traffic incident management across the board, and when we talk about traffic incident management in the highway business we talk about T.I.M. and T.I.M is about a continuum, from incident detection to notification to documentation to response to recovery to after-actions, lessons learned and then start all over again," says Parra.

He adds there is an incident detection system in place inside the tunnels, and a real time color-coded management system.

Green is good. Red, not so much.

"It changes through the day. You start, you get in here around 8 o'clock and it's red. You start getting around four p.m., and it's red," laughs Parra.

The HOC also has an event classification system, from level one, which is clearing debris from the road, to level four, a catastrophe. Parra says most of the time,the center is dealing with accidents, which are a level two.

WBZ NewsRadio 1030′s Mary Blake reports – Part 10

Boston Traffic - Part 10

WBZ traffic reporters try to put a spin on the positive, but oftentimes are hard pressed to find it. Eric Bourassa, Transportation Director of the Metrpolitan Area Planning Council points out some of the roadways you hear mentioned in the reports, like the Jamaica Way and Storrow Drive, were built in the 1950's as parkways, when driving was considered a recreational activity.

"Most people on Storrow Drive aren't thinking, 'Oh, I'm joyriding.' But that was the intention of Storrow Drive and Memorial Drive, as parkways," says Bourassa. WBZ traffic reporter Rick Simonson says the Southeast Expressway has been challenging for years. "I think that was obsolete the day it opened or something, they said, because it just wasn't enough to handle the volume and look at it now, which is a good reason why it's backed up like that for 10 miles," says Simonson.

He adds drivers barely blink now when it comes to the commuter crawl. "We used to get a lot of phone calls, saying why is this backed up so far, what's this, what's that. Now, they just call up and say you know what, it's still backed up to 495, getting down to 128 and they get used to it and so they're sipping their coffee and figuring 'I'll get there when I get there,'" he says.

Transportation Secretary Richard Davey says we have to think creatively because we are not going to 'asphalt our way' out of the congestion problem. "We're not building any more super highways in Massachusetts. We don't have the money. We don't have the space," Davey says.

Traffic on I-93 split. (Photo from Mary Blake)

He adds the state also has its hands full with repairs. The Callahan Tunnel is set to close next month for two and a half months. The final phase of the ten year Add-A-Lane project on Route 128 in Dedham is set to begin this spring. So, what changes can be made? Davey points to electronic tolling. Tobin Bridge testing begins on that in January. Electric cars may be permitted to use the HOV lane north of Boston, and the cement barriers there already have come down.

Other inexpensive improvements include new lane markings and barriers from the MassPike to I-95 in Weston. These markings alone can save motorists 10 to 15 minutes of drive time. Davey says he's excited about giving people real time information, like the 'time to destination' boards that you see on the highway. "I am always checking my watch to see if it is really working and it is, and the reason why, is because the signs are being updated every two minutes now," he says.

State highway officials are also touting their 'Ridewise" smart phone app. In Boston, with 33 percent of all urban traffic congestion directly linked to someone searching for a parking space, 'smart parking' sensors, which let you know the location of open spaces, are now sprouting up. The bottom line, says Davey, "Transportation matters. That's what I love about the job. Transportation matters."

Davey predicts down the road, the driver-less car will be the biggest thing to ease traffic congestion. Google has been testing its version for three years now on the West Coast.


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