Game-changing tech promises to help curb Winnipeg traffic headaches

Driving on city streets during rush hour could soon become less of a headache thanks to state-of-the-art traffic monitoring technology.

City green-lights traffic app, remote monitoring system

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman speaks with reporters at the unveiling of the city's new transportation hub. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Driving on city streets during rush hour could soon become less of a headache thanks to state-of-the-art traffic monitoring technology.

"This is very exciting because this a game changer for us," said Michael Cantor, a traffic signals engineer with the city.

The City of Winnipeg unveiled its splashy new Transportation Management Centre and launched its Waze traffic app on Tuesday.

The city unveiled its new transportation hub Tuesday. It's designed to help monitor and improve traffic flows in Winnipeg. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

City staff at the hub will look to a wall of big screens hooked up to a network of data feeds and 70 cameras already installed at busy intersections.

The cameras can zoom in as far as three kilometres from where they're mounted, said Jonathan Foord, a signal assets engineer with the city.

A network of 650 "signalized intersections," equipped with LTE modems, are up and running. It will allow staff to control traffic signals remotely in a matter of minutes. In theory, the centre will help address bumper-to-bumper backups after crashes or other incidents on the road.

The system also has built-in sensors that will tell city officials when traffic signals are malfunctioning or need replacing. 

"This is a fully-integrated cellular network and something we are in fact leading on. It's something that is going to help us make smarter use of the data," Mayor Brian Bowman said.

"The city of Winnipeg is a large city that does not have a robust freeway system like other cities. Light synchronization is something I have heard about my entire adult life. I have heard politicians talk about it for years, and this not only fulfills a campaign commitment but it delivers results on something that has been discussed in Winnipeg for many, many years," Bowman said.

Previously the city relied on reports from Winnipeggers or sightings from staff in the city to help remedy these issues in a timely manner. That includes drivers calling the city to report the roughly 450 traffic poles that motorists strike down in Winnipeg every year.

New sensors could make quick work of that; signal malfunctions will be sent to the hub in real-time, according to the city.

Traffic information reported to 311 or uploaded by users through the new Waze app will be pulled into one feed to give the city a more comprehensive view of traffic in the city.

The app will also let drivers see reports uploaded by other app users and help them avoid backed-up areas.

Privacy protocol still in works

Mayor Brian Bowman said the data-sharing project will help modernize the city and how it manages traffic flows.

Council approved a $3.6-million initial capital investment and $500,000 annual budget for the hub. But questions about privacy remain as the city has yet to push through an associated privacy protocol to prevent the unintended use of the network of data and cameras.

There are currently privacy protocols in place for all the data being collected, which complies with privacy legislation, a city spokesperson said in an email to CBC. 

"Any new purposes beyond Transportation Management would require new protocols and that is what is now being considered," the spokesperson wrote.

Bowman (second from right) said he has been assured the video feeds and data gathered through the new Transportation Management Centre will only be used for traffic monitoring purposes. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Bowman said privacy concerns over the potential misuse of the system by police for surveillance purposes are valid, but he's been assured the sole purpose of the system is to gather information for traffic management.

"It's a fair question because obviously there are benefits for law environment, but we also have to make sure for first responders [and] law enforcement, other uses other than traffic management need to be done in accordance with [the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act]," he said.

A FIPPA co-ordinator has overseen the project from the beginning, Bowman says, and continues to scrutinize the traffic centre's use of data.

The centre is up and running, but a robust privacy protocol is still in the works and expected to be completed over the next year, Bowman said.

With files from Bartley Kives