Morrill's Corner in Portland is one of the Maine city's busiest traffic junctions. Some 33,000 cars pass through it each day, and it doesn't take much imagination to visualise the kind of chaos and holdups that can occur. Except they don't anymore, or at least not as much as they used to.
Portland's city authorities installed a traffic management system called Surtrac, developed by Rapid Flow Technologies, a tech startup that spun out of Carnegie Mellon University. Since the software was installed, Morrill's Corner has become much less of a traffic hotspot.
In fact, the Portland city managers estimate that they’re saving those 33,000 cars and drivers a combined 156 hours a day, or as many as 41,000 hours per year. That’s one junction. That’s less time stuck in traffic, more time spent at work, or at home with the kids.
Dan Pratt, a Portland bus driver who drives through Morrill's Corner on his route, was quoted in a recent Portland Press Herald article as saying: "It [the new system] has shorted up the wait times a lot." Meanwhile, Julie Rosenbach, a local commuter, said: "I've noticed a big difference . . . it used to back up a few blocks."
Now, EY is trying to bring Surtrac's benefits to Dublin. A recent report by Inrix, a company that specialises in traffic and transport analytics, recently marked Dublin down as being among the most congested cities in Europe. With an average of 246 hours spent in traffic every year, Dublin drivers have only one set of peers when it comes to snarl-ups: the citizens of Rome, who spend 254 hours in traffic every year. Dublin also managed to have the slowest average traffic speed in all of Europe, at just 9.6km/h. In terms of hours lost to traffic, compared with if the roads were freely flowing, Dublin came out the third worst of all.
"Dublin's an old city, with narrow streets, so it's very difficult in terms of moving traffic efficiently around, unless you start widening streets, which isn't really an option," Julia Ann Corkery told The Irish Times. Ms Corkery is associate director on EY's government and infrastructure advisory team, and reckons that Dublin could scoop the same benefits as Portland if it applies Surtrac to the city's traffic management system.
“In terms of investment in infrastructure, there hasn’t been much in the last 10 years, aside from the Luas Cross City line, which of course has caused its own issues with congestion and traffic management,” said Ms Corkery.
"So the Surtrac system works out what's the best way to get the traffic through – for instance, there might be four cars waiting at one light, but 20 at another, so Surtrac will prioritise the 20 over the four, and it's all done in real time. Portland saw a massive benefit on just one junction, done as a pilot scheme, but for instance in Pittsburgh, initially it was rolled out to 50 junctions, all of which talk to each other, and now they're talking about expanding that to many, many more junctions."
It’s not just a benefit in terms of time saved, and improved productivity. According to Ms Corkery, emissions from vehicles passing through the Morrill’s Corner junction in Portland dropped by 20 per cent after the introduction of Surtrac. With the State facing multimillion-euro fines for exceeding our emissions limits, such a reduction could be profound.
The investment needed isn’t especially large either. EY estimates that installing Surtrac would cost about €18,000 per junction, with annual maintenance costs of about €1,000 per junction. That adds up quickly, without question, but it’s certainly a lot cheaper than starting on widening roads, and could be more beneficial, overall, than more schemes to try and tempt or bully drivers out of their cars.
Dublin City Council says that it's quite happy with its existing traffic management system, called SCATS, for now. "The SCATS traffic control system works throughout Dublin City Council and surrounding areas, and this provides second-by-second communication with each traffic light and ensures that information regarding numbers of vehicles in queue as well as pedestrian and cycle numbers can be taken into account in real time," a spokesperson told The Irish Times, before also pointing out the improvements made in bus schedule reliability, the existence of pedestrian detection systems that can allow for major movements of people on foot at junctions, and the collaborations with IBM and the EU on traffic management projects.
Ms Corkery acknowledged that Dublin City Council has worked hard on traffic management and congestion reduction in recent years, but still feels that Surtrac would be an affordable improvement on the existing systems. “While SCATS has been updated and augmented, it can be quite slow to react to a given situation, such as an accident on the quays that blocks one or more lanes,” she told The Irish Times.
“The council is very proud of the traffic management system around Dublin, but I think that the statistics show that we’re the slowest-moving city in Europe, so that would suggest that there is more that can be done. While SCATS is very good, it has its limitations. It’s not as reactive to live situations.
“When you think about the big challenges in congestion, and reducing emissions, we all need to start thinking on a broader scale. If you can see a 20 per cent reduction in emissions because traffic is moving faster and people aren’t sitting there with their engines on, then I certainly think it’s something we should potentially be looking at.
“Obviously we have narrower streets and a different geography to Portland and to other US cities where this has been used, but traffic is traffic, and if you have a line of cars, you have a line of cars, and if you can get them moving faster, that’s a benefit to everyone. People in Dublin are regularly complaining that it can take 20 minutes to move 2km, so if you can get traffic moving quicker you can start chipping away at that.”
Dan Pratt, the Portland bus driver who noticed such a big difference in traffic at just one junction following the introduction of Surtrac, is now hoping that the city expands the system out to other roads. "Can I make a suggestion?" Mr Pratt asked a Portland Press Herald reporter. "Valley and Congress and St John. That light system is one of the top three worst in Portland." Top three worst in Portland. Top two worst in Europe. Can the same software have the same effect on both?