On a weekday afternoon, two vehicles traveling west on Dodge Street in Dubuque collide, totaling both cars and obstructing most of the westbound lanes.
The incident is caught on several of the city’s traffic cameras, and a solution quickly forms to divert traffic away from the site of the crash.
Alternative routes are identified for vehicles traveling on the road, and directions are sent to drivers’ phones or vehicle dashboards. Intersection signal timings are adjusted to accommodate the expected shift in traffic. Emergency responders are notified and begin making their way to the crash site.
All of this happens in a few minutes, not by the efforts of a group of traffic controllers but by a program that watches the streets of Dubuque at all times, constantly making small adjustments to local traffic control to make Dubuque’s interconnected system of roads move vehicles as efficiently as possible.
Dubuque officials intend to turn that program on for the first time this summer.
“When we are showing people what this program will do, they say this is more like a sci-fi movie,” said Chandra Ravada, director of transportation and planning for East Central Intergovernmental Association. “This is not sci-fi. This is real.”
For the past six years, the City of Dubuque, ECIA, Iowa Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration have worked together to create the Smart Traffic Routing with Efficient and Effective Traffic System, or STREETS, a next-generation traffic control program that when fully implemented will fully automate traffic control in the city.
The project to create an automated traffic control system that manages an entire city is considered the first of its kind in the country.
More than that, though, officials behind the project believe STREETS could improve Dubuque’s roadways in many ways, from decreasing travel times to providing city staff with more robust real-time data to make infrastructure improvements. The program is expected to only become more useful in the future, as more vehicles are equipped with smart-technology dashboards and self-driving vehicles draw closer to reality.
Because the program is ahead of its time, however, city officials currently are grappling with how this technology of the future may be held back by current technology.
“We have a new system that provides all this great information,” Ravada said. “We’re still trying to figure out how to show that information to the public.”
An ideal candidate
So, how did Dubuque become the site of the first citywide automated traffic control system?
For one, Ravada said, Dubuque was the ideal size for the project. A larger metropolitan area such as Chicago would make developing the program far too expensive, and a smaller community wouldn’t have the financial resources to invest in the project.
City of Dubuque Traffic Engineer Dave Ness said the community also had an advantage over other, similarly sized communities in that much of the technology infrastructure needed for the project was already there.
“We had a lot of those important pieces already in place,” Ness said. “It was really more us asking how we could better utilize our own technology.”
For the past 20 years, the city steadily has invested in installing fiber conduit and placing traffic cameras throughout the community. More than 1,300 traffic cameras are installed throughout Dubuque, all connected through a robust fiber network.
That infrastructure formed the backbone of what would become STREETS.
This arrangement put much of the upfront costs of the project on development of the program itself and not on additional construction. Without that existing highway network infrastructure, Ravada said, STREETS would have been far more expensive to implement.
“It would be almost three or four times the current cost without that infrastructure,” he said.
However, developing STREETS still has proven costly.
The first phase of the project will cost approximately $3.9 million to complete, much of which is being funded by federal and state grants. The city was required to invest about $545,000.
Starting in August, city staff will begin integrating STREETS into 42 intersections throughout the city, covering the major traffic corridors primarily on the city’s West End, including the Northwest Arterial, Dodge Street, U.S. 61/151, Asbury Road, Pennsylvania Avenue, John F. Kennedy Road and University Avenue.
Next summer, the city will begin to implement Phase 2 of the project, a $1.9 million effort to connect STREETS to an additional 38 intersections, primarily in the downtown area.
Ravada said ECIA and the city still are exploring grant funding opportunities for the project’s second phase.
How it works
Ness said the initial goal of the STREETS project was to create a traffic control system that could manage itself.
The city currently uses a program that primarily relies on set traffic signal timings scheduled throughout the day based on anticipated levels of traffic.
STREETS won’t rely on those set timings because it will read traffic levels in real time and adjust signal timings as needed, Ness explained.
The program will use the city’s traffic cameras to monitor and record traffic data. That data will be fed into traffic models, which STREETS will use to determine optimum adjustments to traffic management.
However, adjusting signal timings is just the tip of the iceberg of the STREETS program’s capabilities.
The program will provide the city with an abundance of real-time traffic information, giving staff more data than they ever have had before about traffic patterns in Dubuque. Readings of total cars on the road, travel times, turn volumes and even carbon emissions will be provided to the city on a daily basis.
Information that once only could be compiled through laborious and expensive traffic studies now will be done automatically. That information will allow city officials to make more informed decisions on how they choose to invest in improvements to the community’s roads.
“It’s 24/7 data that allows you to make decisions better,” Ravada said. “Having that information means you can use it to spend your dollars more wisely.”
Traffic management by STREETS also will go beyond adjusting the timing of traffic signals. The program also will aim to reroute motorists off of the city’s major roadways by suggesting alternate routes to drivers and indicating the quickest way to get to their destination.
“Every time you or me travel for work, we always take one route,” Ravada said. “There are often other streets that are not used to their full capacity. What STREETS will do is try to direct people to use those other routes.”
Over the next year, Dubuque city officials intend to install 19 dynamic messaging signs along major corridors in the community. These signs will provide real-time traffic information to motorists on current conditions and the time to their destinations.
For example, one sign may display information for motorists heading east to reach downtown Dubuque and provide an estimated travel time to get there via both Dodge Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. By providing real-time information on both roads’ traffic conditions, STREETS can use the dynamic messaging signs to inform motorists of the fastest route, diverting some drivers from sticking with their usual routine of waiting in traffic along Dodge Street.
“What we really want is to split that traffic up, so we are more evenly using these routes,” Ness said. “It’s going to make travel for everyone more efficient.”
Besides offering estimated travel times and alternate routes, STREETS also will use the signs to update motorists on traffic obstructions such as crashes and provide alternate route suggestions.
Dubuque Police Department Lt. Brendan Welsh said that while the program isn’t designed to notify police directly of a crash, city staff will be made aware of the crash more quickly as the program notices a buildup in traffic.
He said that if the program can divert vehicles away from congested roads where a crash happens, then traffic safety also will improve.
“The hope is that this will be able to divert traffic from those areas and reduce accidents as a result,” Welsh said.
The city also intends to integrate the system with other public entities. Dubuque Community Schools, for example, will receive updates from STREETS on how daily bus routes could be altered to accommodate for changes in traffic.
Ernie Bolibaugh, transportation manager for the district, said the school district will connect the GPS systems for all of the district’s buses to the program. He believes the program will help get students to and from school faster.
“When there was a wreck at the bottom of the Julien Dubuque Bridge, we didn’t know about it until we had three buses stuck in traffic,” Bolibaugh said. “We’ll know about those things quicker and be able to avoid those delays.”
Though STREETS officially will begin operating this August, Ravada said system integration will take time, so residents likely won’t see the program’s influence on local traffic until the start of summer 2024.
During that first year, officials will integrate STREETS with city cameras and start installing dynamic messaging signs, while the system will establish early traffic pattern expectations.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Transportation directed requests for comment to the City of Dubuque.
A system made for the future
Ness said the use of dynamic messaging signs is ultimately an antiquated solution for the city to direct traffic with STREETS in its early years of operation.
Eventually, city officials said STREETS will provide more precise and direct rerouting suggestions to individual drivers, either by sending directions directly to their phones or to dashboard displays in their vehicles.
A new advancement in vehicle manufacturing is the integration of always-on mobile connections and sensors that provide detailed vehicle information to motorists through a smart dashboard display.
Ness pointed to smart displays in vehicles in particular as a major future step for STREETS. Not only will the display screens provide an easy method of delivering traffic information to drivers, but the information gathered by modern vehicle technology, such as speeds and braking frequency, could be shared with STREETS to provide the program further insight into local traffic patterns.
“The system could receive information that there are vehicles on this roadway that are tapping their breaks a lot,” Ness said. “That would tell it that there is traffic congestion there.”
In return, STREETS could send alternative route suggestions to vehicle dashboards, informing drivers of the quickest way to get to where they are going.
However, Ness said the predominance of smart display technology in vehicles remains limited. So in its early years, STREETS largely will rely on the dynamic messaging signs to communicate with drivers.
“When we started the project, we thought there would be an information dashboard in all vehicles by now,” Ness said.
There are other limitations to STREETS, as well. Since the program relies on the information provided by traffic cameras, Ness said weather that obscures vision, such as snowstorms, could hinder the program’s ability to manage traffic.
The program also is unable to properly react to major events that would alter traffic drastically, such as a storm that takes down multiple traffic signals. In those instances, city staff likely will need to temporarily take over traffic management.
Those limitations, however, are small obstructions to a program that otherwise is expected change traffic and driving in Dubuque forever, Ravada said.
When STREETS becomes fully operational in the summer of next year, drivers should notice improvements to overall traffic times through the automated system, he said. When the driving of vehicles becomes automated, STREETS will be ready for that, too.
“In the future, when you are driving an unmanned vehicle, STREETS will be communicating with that system and guiding it to your destination,” Ravada said. “By doing this, we are putting ourselves into the frontier of technology.”