Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Traffic Operations Division Tour, Part III + epilogue

This is Part III of the tour given to the Roads and Cycling Advisory Committee of the City of Ottawa's Traffic Operations Division at 175 Loretta Street, just off of Gladstone past the O-Train tracks. This is the building from which they monitor and control traffic operations, as well as prepare signs and signals for installation. At the end of this post is an epilogue on the lessons I learned from the tour and the subsequent RCAC meeting.

When you walk into the building, you can see the pride that its inhabitants take in their work to keep Ottawa's traffic flowing smoothly and safely. There's a display case of awards at the front of the foyer, and portraits of long-serving and retired employees grace the walls:

After the traffic control room (Part I of the tour) and the sign shop (Part II), we headed to the rooms where they program, assemble, and test the traffic signals and signal boxes.

Here are some demo units. In the back is a demo bus priority signal--the white bar above the red light indicates priority for buses. At the front is a demo of the pedestrian countdown signal which had been set up in the foyer of City Hall following this report, which was the basis for the approval of these units. Eventually, all crosswalks will have the countdown signals, starting with those at least four lanes wide.

There's a relatively small room in which they assemble the controller cabinets for each intersection. Each one of these boxes has about $12,000 worth of equipment inside, and a full intersection costs about $150,000. They're tremendously complex instruments.

Here, our tour guide Tom Fitzgerald, who is the supervisor of Traffic and Parking Operations, told us about the equipment inside. The controller units are made by an Ottawa-based company, which also makes them for the province. It takes in all the information--its programmed cycles, plus information from signal loops and buttons, and controls the signals. A device called a conflict monitor ensures that you don't get a situation like two directions getting a green light at the same time. If it detects a conflict (which could be caused by a short circuit), it puts all signals to flashing red.

Back in the signal assembly room, Jim Bell talks to the group and Tom looks on. Here is a stack of those pedestrian countdown signals ready to go:

Okay, so the three signals aren't as tall as Jim--he's well behind them. But they are big. Here's a pedestrian signal and a traffic signal facing each other. In the back are some large boots, and you can see that the top of the pedestrian signal is about waist-high:

And here's a larger signal with larger lamps for the red light and green arrow, plus a backing plate (I might have learned the proper name for these parts if I had been paying attention instead of taking photos!) For perspective, that's my pen next to the light:

Here are some four-way signals that hang in the middle of intersections in less-populated areas. I remember there used to be one at Byron and Churchill, which has since been replaced with a full intersection. One direction flashes yellow (proceed with caution), the other flashes red (stop, then proceed with caution if the way is clear).

Now that there's an idea of how big these signals are, you can start to understand how much room was occupied by these racks of assembled signals. The rack along the right wall was at least twice as long as the one on the left:

And that's the end of the tour. I still have some photos to share, though. Outside the building, you can see the Queensway on the right, and behind the parked cars you can make out some metal streetlight posts. Behind that is the O-Train trench:

And what would such a post be without photos of installation. Just a couple days after the tour, workers were working on the wiring at the intersection of Bank and Gilmour, and a police officer was directing traffic. Last August I posted a photo of a worker replacing the bulbs on a traffic light at Elgin and MacLaren.


Unfortunately, the City cut tours of its facilities from its budget as a consequence of the 2004 Universal Program Review, and I think the City is worse off for it. This somewhat exclusive tour of the Traffic Operations Division gave a lot of insight into what the City does and how much work goes into keeping Ottawa moving smoothly. It gives a reminder that "City Staff" aren't a bunch of useless bureaucrats wasting taxpayer money, as the Mayor might have you believe, but rather they are people that do real, tangible work.

This became very clear when Rob Orchin, Manager of Mobility and Area Traffic Management, told us where we were in terms of spending the money budgeted for 2009 for the Ottawa Cycling Plan. Currently, nearly all of the requests for cycling infrastructure are handled by one person--Robin Bennett. This goes everywhere from adding a cycling route sign, to reviewing the geometry of a proposed major roadway to ensure enough space for cyclists, and everything in between. Robin is a cyclist and he is very passionate about doing the best job he can.

The Ottawa Cycling Plan, which was passed last year, promises to spend much more on cycling infrastucture--$5 million per year, up from less than one-tenth that amount. To cope with this increase, the Traffic Demand Management (TDM) department (which works to support ways to get people out of their cars) asked for more staff in the 2009 budget. Unfortunately, this request was declined, as part of the Mayor's drive to cut staff and due to the ongoing hiring freeze. As could be predicted, this has had drastic and costly repercussions.

The department had planned to spend the first part of 2009 on creating a list of cycling projects that would make the best use of the $1.5 million or so that was budgeted for this year. Whatever wasn't finished on this list would then carry forward and be the basis of the 2010 list, and so on. But because of the staff shortage, they had to contract that out to the consultants that developed the cycling plan instead of doing it in-house. See this Sun article from Monday about Councillor Maria McRae's discovery of just how much the City is wasting with this type of arrangement:

But there are other factors that make this molehil into a mountain of a problem. The 53-day bus strike kept the TDM department completely busy trying to find ways to help people who needed alternatives to the bus--things like carpooling, etc. This diverted resources away from creating that project list.

Then the Federal Stimulus package came in and added a whole new dimension. Since cycling funds are scarce, the department tries to get the best use of them by adding cycling facilities alongside larger road projects. This requires the larger road project to go ahead, but it isn't guaranteed that any stimulus project will go ahead. So Rob Orchin and his team have to juggle cycling projects that depend on road projects that depend on stimulus funds, and so on. It's very confusing.

Another complicating factor of the stimulus package is that cycling projects budgeted in 2009 are usually tendered in the fall and built in 2010. But the stimulus funding will make a lot more work in 2010, driving up the price. So it is beneficial to get as many of the cycling projects built in 2009 as possible, which is hard because of the staffing shortage.

Whatever ends up getting planned, the folks in the Traffic and Parking Operations department will do a good job of implementing it!

1 comment:

  1. This was featured in Doors Open 2009. For our take on this facility, visit