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!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Traffic Operations Division Tour, part II

In Part I, I described the first part of the tour 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.

In today's part, I'll go over the signage operations.

After the previous room, we went down a hall to the double-height sign room in the back of the building's lower level.

They had an assortment of signs lying on the side wall, presumably custom signs. They gave names to the ducks on the one in the middle one:

These big ones go on top of traffic signal standards at intersections. There isn't much to get the scale, but they're big--the tall ones are person-sized. The peice of letter-sized paper on the one on the left gives an idea of scale. They have to be big to see them from so far away, as they're at nearly every passive signal and at major roads.

We then went into a small room cut off from the main sign room where they cut out one of the thousands of (de)signs. They use a variety of methods, including silkscreening (like for making t-shirts, where each pass is a different colour), but most are designed and cut using computer-aided software. Thanks to computers, they've been able to reduce staffing requirements by about 50% over the last twenty years.

This particular sheet contains the numbers for the new population signs--the population of Ottawa has recently gone up to 900,000!

They make about 3000 regular signs per year, and 2300 custom signs. But it's inefficient to make just one sign, so they make a bunch of them and store them. Here's a view of the storage room. They had a series of these huge racks of signs. At the start of each day, they'll load up onto the trucks the signs that they'll need for the day.

In the background you can see they have three different sizes of stop signs. In the foreground, Traffic Operations Manager Jim Bell holds up a no-left-turn sign. Again, the signs are a lot bigger than you might think when you see them on the street.

The material on the signs is made with a retroreflective coating, which means that light bounces back to where it came from. By comparison, if you were to hold a flashlight near your eye and point it at a mirror, it would only shine back in your eyes if the mirror is facing you straight-on. Jim showed us that newer signs are made with little prisms, which are five times more reflective than the old reflective-ball coating.

They had a couple of specific signs, too, such as a pre-assembled pair for the intersection of Island Park Drive and Island Park Crescent. In the back are some yellow "Operation Lookout" signs. You don't see these in Centretown; they're mostly put on higher-speed roads to distract people with educational messages.

Some bike signs, as this was, after all, a tour for the Roads and Cycling Advisory Committee...

And at the back of the room were some de-commissioned street signs from former municipalities. These are taken down when a street's signs are replaced with the new blue ones that sport the new City of Ottawa logo. (The new blue ones also have bigger lettering) You can actually buy these old signs from the City for $10--a steal! The City keeps a list of decommissioned signs in inventory, and you can order them by e-mail and pick them up at 175 Loretta. (I've ordered Somerset Street West and Preston.)

Lastly, here's a photo of a sign in action! This bike route sign is encouraging cyclists to ride in the gravel-filled part of Stewart Street.

Oh well. I guess signs can't do everything!

Tune in Wednesday for part III of the tour: traffic signals + epilogue

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Traffic Operations Division Tour, part I

[This is the first of a three-part series. Part II, Part III + epilogue.]

Last Monday, I had the opportunity of sitting in on a meeting of the City's Roads and Cycling Advisory Committee, a group of individual volunteers (mostly cyclists) who provide official input to the City on cycling issues. The City has other Advisory Committees, including RCAC's sibling committee, the Pedestrian and Transit Advisory Committee (which is chaired by CCCA President Shawn Menard), the Local Architecture Conservation Advisory Committee, the Poverty Issues Advisory Committee, the Business Advisory Committee, etc. These committees are an inexpensive and very valuable form of input to the City.

This particular meeting was special because it was held at the City's Traffic Operations Division building at 175 Loretta, off of Gladstone just past the O-Train tracks. I took lots of photos (and even a video) and will be dividing up the tour into three posts (which will be scheduled to post in three-day intervals.

Here's the outside of the building. The sign at the front still has the old Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton (RMOC) logo. You can see the Queensway in the back.

This is the traffic control room. From here, they monitor the 96 traffic cameras around the City. (You can watch them too on the City's website here!) While the online cameras are pretty low resolution and only refresh every few seconds, the ones in the control room display like regular video. They've been monitoring traffic since 1976!

Those two screens at the bottom are a visual display of all the intersections in the City, which monitors each traffic signal once a second. At the back of the room was a large screen showing one of these displays. If you look carefully, number 112 has a red dot next to it, incidating a problem of some sort.

Along the back wall are monitors showing three of the MTO's traffic cameras along the 417.

Now here's the cool part. All 96 cameras can be remotely controlled with pan/tilt/zoom. Here, Omar is at the controls giving a look around the city.

I took a video of him zipping through the Bank/Somerset intersection. He can even see down to Kent! This gives a better idea of what it's like watching all these video monitors. And this is at 6pm--it must be really fun watching during the day!

There are three different levels of traffic systems that they use to control the signals: regular signal timing schedules based on yearly data, statistics and traffic patterns; 5000 sensor systems in the roads that modify the signal timing on a per-cycle basis based on current traffic contidions; and manual override by operators like Omar, above.

This chart shows the way the signals are organized. Many of them are synchronized, so that you can drive along of stretch of road and get green lights most of the way. The rest are free, which means that their cycles aren't dependent on other intersections. The implications of this is that on a free intersection, if you're on a cross street and press the pedestrian button, the light can change immediately. On a synchronized intersection, it has to wait until a specific part of the cycle before it changes. With time for pedestrian crossings, protected left turns, and through traffic, the minimum time for a cycle at an average intersection is about 80 seconds.

Here, Tom Fitzgerald, Superintendent of Traffic Operations, demonstrates how a signal loop triggers from the metal in a sledgehammer (representing the metal in a bicycle). Three yellow dots are placed on loops at intersections to indicate the place where the signal is strongest. When you put your bike over the yellow dots, it will detect your bike and change the light at the right part of the cycle. Some other jurisdictions use a small bicycle stencil to mark this function, which is more expensive. Others use red, yellow and green circles. (This photo is also a sneak-peek of the third post on signals)

The third level is manual intervention. At the back of the traffic control room is a row of computer stations where people monitor traffic and make interventions where necessary, such as changing the messages on overhead message boards (I think the closest one of these to Centretown is on the Bank Street bridge over the Canal heading toward Lansdowne Park). This room was full of people during Barack Obama's visit last month. You can also get a bit of a view of the server room through the glass door at the other end of the room.

Above the screen in the meeting room was the Department's Mission Statement plaque from pre-amalgamation: "We are dedicated to the delivery of transportation services that enhance the quality of life in Ottawa-Carleton."

And that's the end of Part I. Stay tuned for Part II: signs on Monday, and Part III: signals on Wednesday.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Upcoming CCCA activity

The Centretown Citizens' Community Association is having its regular monthly meeting this Tuesday, March 17 at 7pm at City Hall. While the agenda hasn't been posted yet to their website, there are some interesting things coming up.

Community Night at Yuk Yuk's

The CCCA is holding a "FUN"draisier at Yuk Yuk's on Thursday, April 2nd, 2009, starting at 8:30 pm. Half the proceeds of tickets sold by CCCA members goes to the CCCA. You can buy a $14 ticket at the meeting next Tuesday, or follow the contact information on their website.

Yuk Yuk's downtown Ottawa location recently moved closer in to Centretown, onto Elgin Street between Hooley's and Sugar Mountain (the space was formerly occupied by the Bytown Tavern).

As for the CCCA meeting, there will be some important and interesting items on the agenda on issues that have a big impact on Centretown. There will be discussion on the City's public consultation on transit, as well as a couple of presentations.

After last month's motion congratulating the Capital Xtra newspaper on its 200th issue, there will be a presentation at this month's meeting by the Village Initiative, a grassroots plan to designate six blocks of Bank Street, plus some adjoining streets, as Ottawa's gay village. CCCA President Shawn Menard and Glenn Crawford, who is spearheading the Village Initiative, spoke with Xtra in the most recent issue, and the Association will be asked to endorse the initiative on Tuesday.

There are many, many gay-owned/operated businesses along Bank Street, most of which are just regular stores that don't have a gay theme--Bridgehead for example. There are certainly a handful of gay-themed stores like One in Ten at the northern end of the Village... well as stores that cater to a gay audience, like the Centretown Pub or the After Stonewall bookstore (whose name references the Stonewall Riots, a turning point in the gay rights movement):

The CCCA meets on the third Thursday of each month at 7pm at City Hall, and has a track record of interesting presentations each month.

Or if the CCCA isn't radical enough for you, Ashanti Alston will be speaking at the ACO on the same night. Click photo below for details:

Thursday, March 5, 2009

2009 Canal Epilogue - Dow's Snow Sculpture

Since Thursday will be the last day of this year's canal season, this is my last canal-related post of the winter. This is a particularly difficult decision for me, for I took more and better photos as the season wore on. I have 77 more canal photos I'd like to share--and I didn't even get a chance to see (or photograph) the ice sculptures at Confederation Park this year!

But instead of thinning this collection down to a scattered superficial summary, I'm going to keep this post to a single storyline. The other photos I can (and probably will) post next canal season.

In late January on Dow's lake, I noticed some interesting activity in the snowy median between the two tracks. There were some blocks of ice, roped off with a warning sign:

A few days later, a wooden box had been assembled in the spot. I recognized this as being the same type of box they used to fill with snow in front of City Hall for snow sculptures:

But the boxes on Festival Plaza had only been one panel square. This one was two panels wide... three panels deep. Definitely a big sculpture:

Here's a wider shot of Dow's Lake from the South end:

And a closer view from the South side, with Dow's Lake Pavillion in the background:

A few nights later, they filled the box with tight-packing snow using two large snowblowing tractors:

And two days later, it was full. (I just had to sneak in one of my great sky photos!)

During Winterlude, it became evident that the attraction wasn't the snow sculpture, but the snow sculpting, which would go on throughout the weekends of Winterlude. Here the sculptors have made lots of progress on the top half of the sculpture. The bottom half is strong enough for them to walk on!

The theme of the sculpture is "biodiversity at risk," and it depicts a number of endangered polar animals. We can prominently see a walrus in the front. (You can read the panel in the full version--click to see it)

And here's a shot from another angle taken on the third weekend of Winterlude. The Walrus is very visible, as are a bunch of seals:

The bottom part has been sculpted further:

Here's a shot of a snow sculptor at work:

Some polar bears up top, and a beluga whale down below:

Here the bottom part is more defined, and the event is clearly advertised: "Snow Sculpture in the Making"

Oh, dear! The sun will melt away the snow animals! I guess they really are endangered! Ah, well.

All good things must come to an end.

As for today's gratuitous photo...

Last Sunday, I was skating along and saw these two gentlemen having fun and getting their photos taken by various passers-by. The gentleman on the left said he was Colonel By and asked me if I knew that he built the canal. (Not to be outdone, I ended up tellin him more things about the canal that he didn't know, including the name of the Corktown Footbridge and the history behind this name). They said that the Sunday after Winterlude--which they correctly predicted would be the last Sunday of the season this year--should be costume day. A very good idea! I'll have to remember it next year.

Fittingly, I got a shot of them in front of the Corktown Footbridge:

Well, it pains me to refrain from posting some of the images I have, but it's time to move onward toward Spring (did you know Daylight Saving Time is this weekend?!?) The bright side is that I will be able to get back to photographing and posting about Centretown again!