116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — How many times have you driven down one of the major corridors in Cedar Rapids without hitting a single red light, and thought it was luck?
Well, it’s not luck. It’s actually one piece of the city’s complex traffic engineering efforts, according to Cedar Rapids Traffic Engineering Program Manager John Witt. The program not only helps manage traffic, but can help officials respond to bad weather and will increasingly help keep an eye on river levels as the city builds more of its flood protection system.
“Our goal is to keep traffic flowing smoothly and safely through the city,” Witt said. “And this system allows us to monitor and adjust traffic flow remotely in order to prevent congestion, especially on our major corridors.”
The Cedar Rapids Traffic Engineering Division manages and operates more than 187 traffic signals, about 1,200 streetlights and over 1.5 million feet of pavement markings and signage designed to organize the movement of freight, transit, cars, bicycles and pedestrians. In managing the traffic signals, the division uses a combination of observation cameras and computer software to monitor traffic volume and adjust traffic flow to minimize congestion and delays, Witt said.
Determining timing schedules for the city’s signals is based on a combination of traffic volume, busiest times of day, safety and the time of year.
The past year, Witt said, proved an interesting time for the city’s traffic engineers.
When the derecho hit on Aug, 10, 2020, Witt said the storm knocked out power to every signal in the city.
“Fortunately a majority of our intersections have battery backup systems, so a good portion of our signals remained running. But those systems are only designed to handle small, everyday outages, and in some parts of the city, we lost power for weeks,” he said. “So the storm had a huge impact.”
Many traffic signals were damaged, many observation cameras were knocked out of place and much of the traffic signal timing had to be reprogrammed, Witt said — most of which has been completed, though there are still some signal repairs due to be made.
The pandemic — and its effects on traffic volumes — also prompted a lot of adjustments, he said.
“In the first few months of the pandemic, we saw a dramatic decrease in traffic volume, so we made a lot of adjustments to signal timing all over town, especially in areas where, and during times of day, when a lot of the traffic was generated by people going to work or school,” he said.
“We didn't have as much congestion, but we also needed to make sure we didn't have needless delays,” he said. “So we were really looking at the volumes, and doing a lot of observation with the cameras to see how we needed to adjust the timing.”
Now, as the city begins to open up, Witt said a lot of signal timing is again being reevaluated and adjusted to accommodate increased traffic volumes.
Similar adjustments typically are made several times throughout the year to accommodate or adapt to holiday and seasonal traffic volumes.
Of the city’s roughly 187 signaled intersections, about 130 are equipped with traffic observations cameras — with most of them placed along the city’s busiest corridors. Eventually, Witt said, the city will have cameras at every signaled intersection in the city.
Numbers provided by the Traffic Engineering Division show First Avenue E as it stretches from Collins Road NE to Stoney Point Road SW — where First Avenue has become Williams Boulevard SW — is one of the most heavily signalized corridors in the city, with 42 signaled intersections.
Before the pandemic, the city’s Traffic Engineering Program operated out of the City Services Center at 500 15th Ave. SW. There, employees could monitor the intersections on multiple screens while tending to myriad other duties. Now — with the City Services Center closed and most employees working from home in the pandemic — Witt said it’s all done remotely, and most of it is automated.
“We don’t have someone sitting and watching these cameras 24 hours a day,” he said. “In bigger cities like Los Angeles, I’m sure that might be the case, but here we’ll have the screens up, and we’ll check the cameras periodically throughout the day as we work on other things. But with the system being automated, we don’t really have to do much with it day-to-day unless there is a malfunction or some type of other problem.”
Though they have the capability, Witt said, most of the time the cameras are “observing traffic flow” and not recording video. Typically, he said, video would be recorded if officials need to collect data on a specific intersection.
“We sometimes get people calling and saying they were in an accident at this time and at this location and they’re hoping we have footage of it, but we rarely record video with these cameras,” Witt said.
The same answer applies should law enforcement come knocking and asking for video images, he added.
Currently, new cameras are being installed any time the city updates or reconstructs an intersection, whether it is part of the city’s Capital Improvement Projects program or its Paving for Progress program.
There are two main types of cameras, Witt said — pan-tilt-zoom cameras and detection cameras.
Pan-tilt-zoom cameras are able to pan 360 degrees as well as tilt up and down and zoom in when engineers need to get a closer look at something.
Detection cameras are little different, Witt said. They use video detection and radar to detect when cars are approaching an intersection and can signal the system to turn a light from red to green depending on the time of day and what timing cycle is running at that moment.
When the city opted to install the traffic observation system in 2015, it started with installation of about 80 cameras as well as the purchase of the video management software, the traffic signal system software and controller upgrades.
Public Services Communications Specialist Emily Breen said the program is funded through the city’s Capital Improvement Projects budget.
Breen said the cameras cost $2,700 to $3,000 — not including installation — the initial cost of the video management software was $39,000 and the cost of the traffic signal system software and controller upgrades was $736,000.
To some, that may seem like an enormous investment for a city that doesn’t have that much traffic compared with large metropolitan cities. But Witt said tens of thousands of cars pass through the city every day.
“With this system we are able to monitor traffic — especially on our major corridors — and make sure things are operating as they should,” he said. And if there’s an incident like a wreck, they can adjust traffic signal timing. The system can prove especially useful in bad weather, Witt said, “because we are able to monitor road conditions and make the decision as to when to deploy plows or other resources.”
Some of the cameras placed near the Cedar River help city officials monitor flood conditions, Witt said, and more will be added as the city moves forward with its flood mitigation plans.
“We'll be placing cameras in or near the locations where there's a floodgate going across the roadway, so we'll be able to monitor river levels and make sure the gates are operating as they should be during those events,” he said.