Bay Area traffic management network failing, report shows

(S.F. Examiner File Photo)

Living in a region with some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation can be bad enough for commuters. But it’s even worse when the tools designed to manage that traffic are frequently broken or shut down.

Tools such as closed-circuit television cameras, metering lights and variable message signs are unreliable in delivering real-time traffic updates to motorists — a lack of results that has the Bay Area’s lead transportation agency clamoring for a bigger role in managing the system.

In December, only 44 percent of the region’s CCTV systems were operational, according to data collected by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees long-term planning policies in the Bay Area. Of the 353 cameras, 93 percent still rely on dial-up technology to get online.

Just 49 percent of traffic sensors were working and only 61 percent of the Bay Area’s electronic message signs were in use. All these systems are currently managed by Caltrans, the state transportation agency.

“The importance of these tools cannot be overstated,” said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the MTC. “To monitor traffic situations and address congestion, you have to know what’s happening on the freeway in real time. If we can’t get that data, we can’t address the problem in a timely fashion.”

Traffic is a major issue in the region. According to a report last year by Citrix, a data analysis company, the Bay Area had the third-worst congestion in the nation, trailing Los Angeles and Honolulu.

Elizabeth Deakin, a professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, said investing in reliable traffic management tools could ease congestion by 5 percent in the region. That’s not a trivial amount — it’s the difference between halting, stop-and-go traffic and free-flowing vehicles, Deakin said.

“This isn’t the sort of work that seems to capture the imagination or hold the attention of officials for very long,” Deakin said. “It’s not glamorous, and it’s not rocket science, but it’s just basic day-to-day stuff that we really need to be doing.”

Deakin’s colleagues at UC Berkeley released a study this week showing that a tiny percentage of commuters from the suburbs account for a considerable amount of congestion in the region. Goodwin said that problem could be significantly reduced by simply investing more in traffic-management tools such as metering lights.

With the MTC slated to invest $1.25 billion in traffic management systems over the next 25 years, the agency is pining for a larger role in how they are overseen. At a committee meeting today, the MTC will discuss the possibility of more management of the regional system. The one tool managed by the agency — traffic sensors for its 511 website — has a success rate of 97 percent, a contrast to Caltrans’ performances.

“We know we have to work together with Caltrans, but the MTC is interested in becoming more of an active participant,” Goodwin said, “because right now the existing system is delivering a very poor return of investment.”

Caltrans did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

(Not) watching the flow

Availability rates of traffic management tools in December:

Tool Availability Rate
Ramp Meters 85 percent
Variable message signs 61 percent
Traffic detector stations 49 percent
CCTV cameras 44 percent

Source: MTC