Concrete technology

Published 9:45 pm Monday, November 18, 2013

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that we’re only a hundred years or so removed from the time when the vast majority of folks traveled around Suffolk on horseback or in horse-drawn wagons. Whereas at the turn of the 20th century Suffolk was a place with no paved roads and only a few major travel routes that would have taken folks from one village to another, the turn of the 21st century saw a city crisscrossed in even its remotest areas by ribbons of asphalt. There is almost no place in Suffolk today that’s inaccessible by a vehicle with an internal combustion engine.

On the other hand, it’s also hard to believe that after nearly 100 years of paved roads the technology has progressed so little. Concrete and asphalt are largely unchanged in that time, and a road in Suffolk today looks very much the way a road in Suffolk would have appeared just 50 years ago.

But take another look next time you’re sitting at a stoplight, and you’ll see at least one way that technology has caught up to traffic engineering: the intersection camera.

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About 70 of Suffolk’s 100 signalized intersections have cameras, but they’re not being used to track red-light-runners. Instead, the cameras are used to help regulate the flow of traffic around the city, and reports seem to indicate they do a better job at that function than the now old-fashioned system of sensor loops in the pavement.

That old technology worked well until it was disturbed by shifting asphalt or utility crews. The new technology is unaffected by either of those situations, and it gives city traffic engineers the ability to fine-tune traffic-signal cycles on the fly.

When traffic begins to back up on the off-ramp from Route 58 to Godwin Boulevard, for instance, a camera sees the line of cars and — having been programmed to make the decision automatically — switches the light to get those cars moving so they will not back up onto the highway.

“We do not have any intersections in the city where we have a fixed cycle,” Suffolk traffic engineer Robert Lewis said last week. “If nobody’s coming, we want that signal to be able to change to the side street.”

There’s probably a limit to what technology can do to improve city streets — concrete and asphalt are pretty low-tech materials, after all — but it’s good to know that Suffolk is taking advantage of the appropriate technology when it’s available.