Despite the lengthy travel times and seemingly endless construction delays, more than 70 per cent of Toronto commuters drive. Things could be a whole lot worse, if not for the dedicated team watching over our vehicular movements.
It’s behind-the-scenes work with high visibility.
If you’ve ever been stuck at what feels like an eternal red light, Rajnath Bissessar feels your pain. He’s Toronto’s head honcho when it comes to signal timings and all things red, amber, and green. Working out of an incognito control centre in East York, Bissessar and his team of technologists constantly strive to make our roads move better. It might not be obvious to frustrated commuters, but the city spends a lot of time tweaking its nearly 2,300 signal-controlled intersections. Earlier this year, Toronto gave pedestrians more time to cross the street, and in June, council voted for longer green lights on Richmond, Adelaide, Bloor, and Kennedy. It’s a never-ending project; the city adds 30 to 40 new traffic signals every year.
To turn those directives into reality, Bissessar’s staff use a set of computer programs to monitor live activity at each intersection and detect trends. The data is used to test revised signal priorities in a virtual environment before tweaks are made in the real world. Toronto was the first city in the world to computerize its entire traffic system in 1963, so there’s a wealth of experience to draw on. Still, mastering the timing of signals is the team’s biggest challenge. Take any intersection controlled by traffic lights: Any alteration to improve the flow in one direction has the potential to create delays in countless other places.
Big Brother is watching you.
At the heart of the traffic centre, in a separate glass-doored room, the dazzling 60-screen highway Traffic Operations Centre (TOC) flickers like a miniature NASA mission-control room. Here, a separate private-sector team monitors cameras on the Gardiner, Lake Shore, and Don Valley Parkway 24 hours a day, issuing directives to EMS and posting advice on the overhead LED gantries. During my visit, a silver car ground to a halt in the fast lane of the northbound DVP. Within seconds, calls were placed and the cops showed up, lights flashing, to save the day. Every year the TOC handles thousands of these incidents via its 76 vantage points. If you’re a little paranoid about having all those eyes on your driving habits, don’t be—the TOC isn’t allowed to help cops nail speeding drivers without a warrant.
When Toronto was inundated with unprecedented rainfall on July 8, the Traffic Management Centre played an important support role in the city’s immediate response. The team quickly advised the Office of Emergency Management about which signals had lost power, so they could rapidly dispatch police officers. The centre also boosted the number of on-call repair teams from three to 10 as reports began to pour in about lingering technical problems. Luckily, the rain caused no lasting damage—the signal outages were entirely caused by the blackouts and most were an easy fix.
Yes, there are secrets to beating the lights.
There are two types of traffic lights in Toronto, says Bissessar: Ones that work on a timer and ones that rely on a sensor embedded in the road. As regular cyclists will know, detection at the latter is often lousy for small vehicles. Luckily, Bissessar has a fix: Look for three painted dots on the road surface near the stop line—these mark the part of the vehicle sensor where a cyclist stands the best chance of triggering the lights. It doesn’t always work, but it’s better than getting off and walking to the crosswalk. See, there isn’t just some vindictive traffic god up there trying to thwart your progress.