Smart Cities

How a smart city platform created for Pittsburgh became a nationwide business

The smart traffic management platform showcases how innovation can spill over city-to-city.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

Long before rolling out its “Smart Spines,” Pittsburgh officials were trying to think of ways to reduce traffic delays in the city.

They landed on a solution called Scalable Urban Traffic Control (Surtrac), a traffic management system designed to slash time spent sitting at red lights, in a bid to simultaneously reduce congestion and emissions. Surtrac, a platform that uses software to analyze data from cameras, signal controllers, and sensors, was first imagined and tested in 2010, before being deployed in 2012 in Pittsburgh at a rate of about 10 intersections per year over the first five years. As of 2022, Surtrac has been implemented in 50 out of 610 traffic intersections around Pittsburgh, and city officials have previously said they want it to cover at least 200 intersections in the city.

Surtrac was originally created in partnership with the city through $2.5 million in funding given to Carnegie Mellon University by local philanthropies like the Hillman Foundation, the R.K. Mellon Foundation, and the Heinz Endowments, according to Griffin Schultz, CEO of RapidFlow Technologies, the for-profit venture that was created in 2016 to commercialize Surtrac beyond the Steel City. Today, RapidFlow operates “hundreds of intersections” in over 20 cities across North America, including Pittsburgh, Harmar Township, and Quakertown, Pennsylvania; Quincy and Needham, Massachusetts; and Portland, Maine.

“Basically, every vehicle, every pedestrian, every bicycle, every bus, wants to schedule time to use the intersection, and our software comes up with the best schedule to have everybody use that intersection as efficiently as possible. And the software’s objective function is to reduce total delay,” Schultz told Emerging Tech Brew.

Schultz said building smart intersections in general can cost cities around $100,000 per intersection when working from scratch, but those costs can be lower if a city already has some of the necessary camera and sensor infrastructure in place.

Surtrac is designed to identify everything that crosses an intersection, using a city’s existing network of cameras, sensors, and traffic lights, and then take that data and use machine learning to optimize traffic patterns and improve commute times equally for the people, cars, trucks, buses, and bikes that use it.

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According to RapidFlow, Surtrac’s implementation got people to their destination 25% faster, with 40% less wait time at intersections and with 30%–40% fewer stops, which contributed overall to a 20% reduction in emissions due to idling at red lights. Schultz said that for every 10 intersections using Surtrac, cities reduce emissions by the equivalent of removing 100 cars a year.

In Pittsburgh specifically, Karen Lightman, executive director of the Metro21 Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, told us that Surtrac corridors improved traffic congestion by 40% and reduced emissions while idling at red lights by 20%.

The platform is “decentralized,” Schultz said, meaning that each deployment is designed to effectively reduce delays at that specific intersection. The more intersections a city chains together on Surtrac, the more coordinated a city’s approach to traffic management can be, ultimately helping reduce overall traffic, Schultz said.

“We can solve unique micro problems at a single intersection, and our system can communicate [with] its neighbor systems and create concrete coordinated efforts across numerous intersections,” Schultz said.

Looking ahead…Schultz said RapidFlow plans to release a platform called Routecast later this year, which is designed to expand on Surtrac by integrating self-reported data from users on the ground. The system will relay that data to Surtrac and combine it with the platform’s sensor and camera data to try and reduce delay times at participating intersections throughout the network.

Schultz claims that Surtrac paired with Routecast can save vehicles as much as 10–12 seconds per intersection, up from the four to six seconds the company claims for its current product. Routecast has done at least five proof-of-concept deployments, he said, and plans to fully deploy in the fall of 2022.

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