City of Systems

City of Systems: Traffic Signal

12,400 traffic lights preside over New York City’s intersections, communicating to each user whether or not he or she has the right of way. Meanwhile, in Long Island City, the New York City Department of Transportation’s Traffic Management Center (TMC) controls half of those signals remotely. At the TMC, computers and live video feeds monitor real-time data — including current signal displays, traffic detectors and cycle lengths — at hundreds of intersections each. Coaxial cables connect these computers to the intersections, and 238 cameras allow the engineers to observe and adjust signal timing in case of an accident or other sudden change to the flow of traffic.

Earlier this year, Urban Omnibus sat down with TMC Director John Tipaldo, a systems engineer who oversees the facility, to learn firsthand about some of the priorities and technologies that influence the operation of traffic signals. Stoplights, it turns out, aren’t about limiting vehicular speed. They are about organizing who has the right to travel across a certain intersection at a particular time — cars going in this direction, cars going in that direction, pedestrians — and who has to wait until the other does so. In other words, traffic signals are about negotiating the interests of different users. What could be more urban than that? Find out more in the video below.

This Urban Omnibus video is the first in a series called City of Systems, a suite of short videos intended to offer a poetic peek behind the scenes of some of the complex systems that enable New York City to function. This video series is made possible by IBM as part of its commitment to use technology and information to help build more sustainable and intelligent cities.

Most talk of urban systems these days seems to focus on efficiency and effectiveness, with a particular emphasis on using digital technologies to increase both. At IBM Smarter Cities New York in October of 2009, IBM CEO Samuel Palmisano posed questions to illustrate the significant role that technology plays in building smarter cities. With four billion cell phones, 30 billion RFID tags and two billion internet users constantly providing and collecting data, what happens when we apply analytics to guide more strategic resource allocation as our digital and physical infrastructures converge?

Urban Omnibus and the Architectural League, as part of our mission to foster excellence in the design of the built environment, want to infuse this conversation about what’s technologically possible with informed debate about what kind of urban future is desirable. The Architectural League has been looking at the implications of computing embedded in our everyday environments, or situated technologies, for several years. Through a symposium, pamphlet series, exhibition and recently-published book called Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space, the Situated Technologies project has engaged architects, artists and technologists in a provocative exploration of what design has to offer, and how design can critique, the ubiquity of sensors and automatic data generation in our urban experience. Gregory Wessner, who has overseen the project as the League’s exhibitions and digital programs director, characterizes the central issues as an urgent question: “At a moment when new digital technologies seem to be dematerializing more and more of the world around us (think books, CDs, photographs), what impact are they having on the insistent materiality of buildings and cities?”

Meanwhile, Urban Omnibus has been reporting on what some of these trends and technologies have to offer the evolving conversation about infrastructure investment, public participation and open data. But for all the innovations and policy recommendations that emerge from these multiple and overlapping convergences (digital and physical, dematerialized and apparent, data and visceral experience), our primary objective is to encourage greater intimacy with the choices and operations that give shape to the urban environment. To that end, we want to foster appreciation of the complexity and sophistication of the urban systems that currently enable us to go about our day, those systems that we take for granted — like the expectation that a stoplight will always, eventually, turn green.

The music in the video, “Bellows” by Loscil, appears courtesy of kranky.