Today the cops watch your car, Tomorrow they will watch you


Scottsdale transit managers use new cameras
By Jonathan Athens, Tribune
July 20, 2006

Bruce Dressel, Steven Ramsey and Dan Edwards do their jobs by the numbers. The numbers they crunch translate into a faster drive time for Scottsdale motorists every morning on the way to work and on the way home at the end of the day.

“I love this because I know I get to help people get home sooner. You know you are either eliminating or reducing a driver’s frustration,” said Edwards, an “intelligent transportation system” operator with the city.

From a room packed full of sophisticated computer equipment on the second floor of the city’s administration building on Indian School Road, the three Scottsdale employees monitor real-time cameras and manage the traffic signals at 43 of the city’s 275 intersections.

The city recently installed 31 new cameras, bringing the total number of traffic surveillance cameras operated by the city to 43.

“The reason all this came about — we had typically 50 (police) officers controlling traffic. We’re down to about 20 officers or less,” said Dressel, the city’s ITS supervisor.

The city started with 12 cameras, he said.

The impetus to expand the system came about as a result of the hundreds of thousands of motorists that clog city streets during the annual FBR Open golf tournament, Dressel said.

Dressel said the system, which cost about $11 million, enables technicians to change the traffic signal sequences at intersections in order to relieve traffic congestion, compensate for special events, help clear the way in the event of accidents, and to make getting around construction a little easier.

Despite the sophisticated technology, there are limitations, Dressel said.

“An intersection can only handle so much traffic — like a sponge, you can’t get it any wetter than saturation,” Dressel said, adding that the city intends to acquire 30 more traffic surveillance cameras in the future.

Dressel said the new camera system has helped alleviate congestion and reduce travel times even though motorists might not realize it.

Some people who spoke with the Tribune said they were not aware of the new cameras but they thought the cameras are a good idea.

“It makes people more aware of how they are driving,” said Scottsdale resident Corrine Hawkins.

Hawkins, who said she drives a lot in the city, said she hasn’t experienced any significant difficulty getting around.

“So far so good,” she said of her daily driving.

Scottsdale resident Scott Levinson said he thinks it takes longer these days to get around because of traffic congestion.

Levinson, who commutes about 20 miles each day from his residence to his office, said he is in favor of the camera system.

“I’m for that. If they can spread out or slow down traffic volumes, that’s fine,” Levinson said.

Before the cameras were installed, changing traffic signal sequences took two or three days. Now it can be done in a matter of minutes, said Ramsey, the ITS analyst.

From one of the computer stations in the city’s traffic control room, Ramsey pointed to a series of travel times listed on a spreadsheet program while a huge flat screen on one wall displayed simultaneous live broadcasts from 12 intersections.

Ramsey said changing a traffic signal sequence isn’t a matter of merely watching cars via camera and initiating a change — it requires calculation and analysis to make certain the signal change will work.

Scottsdale’s ITS, he said, has come a long way since the days he “was in a closet with one computer, two cameras, one television and one telephone” to manage the entire city’s traffic patterns.

Just the facts

Fast facts about Scottsdale traffic signals and traffic cameras

• It takes 120 seconds for a traffic signal to cycle through all directions at an intersection during morning and evening rush hours.

• Scottsdale has 275 intersections, 43 of which are monitored by closed-circuit cameras.

• Scottsdale’s “intelligent transportation system” started out in the late 1990s with one computer, one television set, two cameras and one telephone.

• The shortest distance between traffic signals is 300 feet between Brown Avenue and Buckboard Trail.

• The longest distance between traffic signals is just over two miles between Pima Road and Dynamite Boulevard.


Contact Jonathan Athens by telephone at (480) 970-2342.