Deep within the bowels of City Hall lies a control centre which looks as if it came straight out of a Bond movie. With massive screens, whirring computers, eagle-eyed operators and no seeming way of escape, all that is missing is a one-eyed balding villain, stroking a pristine white cat and drawing up a dastardly plan to take over the world.
It was here on Monday that representatives of the city's media were brought, not in a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang form of entrapment as many had feared, but to be shown around Galway city's Urban Traffic Control Centre overseeing the new smart traffic system where the traffic lights talk to each other and from where the entire city traffic network can be monitored.
The room is dominated by the massive screens which flick from one location to another. By the end of the year, there will be 20 cameras around the city and this will rise to almost 30 by late next year.
The system is also designed to work with outside agencies, the gardai being an obvious example. Although officials refused to be drawn on it, it is obvious that, were there, for example, to be a crime situation unfolding in the city, the lights could be controlled to ensure that villains could be caught up in snarling traffic, a la Michael Caine in the original The Italian Job, or that the entire network could be placed on red.
Also in terms of the emergency services, it will help in co-ordinating responses in extreme weather conditions. In fact, the control centre becomes the nerve centre for any major situation under the emergency plan.
It is an impressive sight and the team of Director of Services for Transport Ciaran Hayes, Assistant Director of Services for Transport Joe Tansey and Executive Engineer at the Galway Transport Unit Brian Burke are proud of their new baby.
"Up until now, we have been operating without eyes and ears when it comes to traffic. This changes all of this," said Mr Hayes, who ran the demonstration like the late Steve Jobs unveiling an iPad. He revealed that plans are afoot to develop apps which will provide realtime traffic information so that road users can plan their journeys.
"Live feeds from the cameras will be available on certain media and our website as the whole manner of reporting traffic news is revolutionised,” he said. This was news unlikely to be greeted with joy by Galway Bay fm's traffic king Jon Richards who attended the event, and who we all spculated would view the traffic control centre in the same way that Fr Ted's Mrs Doyle regarded the gift of the teamaker she received from Ted.
But Jon is not downbeat about it. In fact, his traffic bulletins may now be broadcast from both the Goldwing motorcycle on the road and from the nerve centre and he is embracing the next technology.
It’s all in the math
So how does it all work? Like a Steve Jobs unveiling, it is all based on algorithms. The algorithm that does the math behind the system is calculated on the optimum times for each stage of the junctions, ensuring that each route gets more green time than red, when it is needed.
Basically, detectors feel the cars, quantify them and work out a sequence to get a green light on their lane as soon as possible.
As another set of lights went on this week at the Ballybane junction, Brian revealed how the smart lights work in three phases. The first phase sees them operate on a tried and tested traditional rigid sequenced programme, giving each lane 30 seconds here and 30 seconds there. In the second phase, the lights build up a database of the traffic flow information at different times and in the third phase, the lights themselves use their own intelligence to apply the necessary light sequencing to the appropriate conditions and times.
And although the network is not yet complete in the city, already it is reaping benefits for motorists. The team revealed that an additional 400 cars per hour make it through the junction at Briarhill than used to the be the case at peak time under the roundabout system.
And even now, just days into the Font Junction, the increased throughflow is obvious to see for Tuam Road users like myself, as the new lanes and lights allow traffic to be filtered. Briarhill and Moneenageisha users also report the same positive results, even though tailbacks at Moneen’ are caused not by obstacles there, but by delays further up on the Dublin Road.
The intelligence of the lights is gathered by the detectors placed at the junctions along the network. While most of the emphasis on this programme has been on the lights, the real work is being done by these high-tech sensors which detect traffic density and alter the light sequencing accordingly.
When traffic flow is heavy at one junction, it informs the lights further along the road that heavy traffic is on the way so it gets the next set to get ready to handle the load and so on.
Almost 30 per cent more cars are getting through Moneenageisha at peak times than used to be the case and the Control Centre crew have the data to back this up.
The camera screens also feature several large blank patches, covering prominent buildings such as hotels, ostensibly to protect the privacy of customers at hotels along the routes, so there is no danger of any indiscretions featuring guests in flagrante delicto al fresco featuring as primetime entertainment at the control centre.
"There is a perception that the new system is working because there are fewer cars on the road, but that is not the case. As the system works, the number of tailbacks is reduced, so the roads look quieter, but the stats we have show that this is not the case, and that an increased number of cars is getting through each junction,” said Mr Hayes.
Joe Tansey said that the system also monitors faults along the network and even if a bulb in a pedestrian button goes, it will activate an email to the suppliers to ensure that it is ordered and replaced as soon as possible.
New VMS signs giving traffic and parking and event information along the city's roads are to be in place in the coming weeks, so at least waiting motorisst won't be bored as up to date traffic info is carried on these signs; info on the availability of car parking spaces, problems ahead, weather conditions, potential delays and whether Charlie has married Esther on Fair City. The possibilities are endless.
The new system will also link in with the new smart bus kiosks which come online later this year when realtime bus arrival times will be displayed on small screens, telling intending passengers what time the next bus is due. In conjunction with other bus companies, it will help ensure they get through on time so that public transport becomes a more reliable and attractive option for road users.
“This is a project that will never be finished,” Mr Hayes concedes, “as there is always going to be a battle to solve the traffic problems. The city has only a finite amount of space for cars and at times where there is increased traffic, then there will inevitably be traffic congestion problems.”
He admits that this debate has seen the most intense discourse and he expects more when work begins on the Bodkin (Shopping Centre ) roundabout removal in August and when the focus of people’s ire will be concentrated on the timing of the work and the visible sight of cars backed up at its edges.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel in the sense that all of the roadworks are resulting in a tangible improvement in traffic throughflow and this will be further enhanced as more and more junctions revert to smart lights. For the time being remember, though, that when you are stuck in traffic, someone, somewhere is watching you...and they’re feeling your pain.