The red light you just hit? It's supposed to get you to the office sooner

Sameer Patil, leader of the Mobility Operations Centre in southeast Calgary, stands in front of screens monitoring traffic in Calgary. The screens never shut off, as the centre operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  (Monty Kruger/CBC - image credit)
Sameer Patil, leader of the Mobility Operations Centre in southeast Calgary, stands in front of screens monitoring traffic in Calgary. The screens never shut off, as the centre operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (Monty Kruger/CBC - image credit)

It's mid-afternoon and you see nothing but green ahead as you turn onto a main artery in downtown Calgary.

Surely if you drive at a steady pace you'll hit each of these green lights.

But the best-laid plans often go awry and you curse your bad luck as that green light flicks red. Here's the thing, though. Luck had nothing to do with it.

Not so far away, near the Stampede grounds in Calgary's southeast, stands one of the people responsible for your driving disruption.

The leader of Calgary's Mobility Operations Centre says the goal is to actually get motorists to their destination faster. Not slower.

"Sometimes you might feel like that," said Sameer Patil. "But that's not our intent."

Patil is standing in front of a monitor wall made up of 14 screens which can display more than 100 traffic cameras across the city simultaneously.

It looks like something out of a Hollywood film, and it comes with a generous price tag.

City council approved upgrades to the centre at a price of $8.1 million — a more advanced operations room, improved camera systems and more — all of which were completed in 2020.

But for the city, it's money well spent.

As Patil sees it, the mission is to slash traffic congestion; keep roadways safe.

It's no simple job in a city of more than 1.3 million in which approximately 270,500 people enter the downtown via automobile, transit, bike or foot on a typical day.

CBC News
CBC News

The people behind the curtain

With a few keystrokes and mouse clicks, staff at the facility can override any of the city's 1,200 traffic signals when necessary: say, when traffic backs up after a Calgary Flames game, or when construction has impacted regular timing.

It's a big responsibility.

And as for those frustrations residents might feel with those pesky red lights downtown?

Calgary's traffic management system — like that of any sprawling urban city — is complex. In industry jargon, it's based on traffic flow theories to reduce overall delays. In layman's terms, all those red lights are intended to serve the greater good.

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

Patil sketches it out as simply as he can, though he's quick to clarify that snow falling from the sky or construction going off-script can quickly disrupt the plan.

Picture in your mind 150 traffic signals in Calgary's downtown.

Those signals are pre-timed and are programmed to move as much volume out of the downtown as possible, as efficiently as possible. Each is modelled into software equipped with the latest traffic data.

The results of the simulation that software spits out help engineers assign "green splits" — that's how much available green light time each direction receives — regularly reviewed and modified if issues arise.

All that to say: it might mean you hit more red lights than you'd prefer in some instances, but in the end, the system, with its theories and models in tow, should get everyone home quicker — if things are going according to plan.

CBC News
CBC News

Nerding out over traffic

Angela Knight of the Calgary Eyeopener is happy to nerd out about traffic in Calgary. Every weekday morning, she keeps close watch over live traffic patterns, keeping listeners abreast of the latest snarls.

She has a lot of questions, many of which are often expressed to her in calls to the station from frustrated drivers.

Take a light put in years ago at the intersection of 10th Avenue and 14th Street S.W.

It could be, Knight pondered, that a traffic light in that location makes perfect sense. But it does also feel like it was put in to deliberately slow the traffic there as drivers come under 9th Avenue, whether they were going northbound or southbound.

"I don't think I've ever hit it when it's been green, ever," she said.

What would the city say about that?

At the Mobility Operations Centre, Patil is presented with that query on the spot. He confers with the brain trust, calling across the room: "Hey, what about the spot at 10th Avenue?"

The answer reveals the complexity of the challenge at hand.

He reiterates that its strategy isn't to intentionally slow down traffic with red lights. Because the city had removed a traffic median at that intersection, for safety reasons, they needed to install a traffic signal. That slowed down traffic that previously had been able to happily cruise on by.

Google Maps
Google Maps

Or, Angela wonders, how about the intersection at Macleod Trail and 25th Avenue S.W.? The trains at that location run frequently, and motorists sometimes feel like they don't get their turn at the lights.

That intersection, Patil explains, is a particularly challenging one due to the proximity of the CTrain tracks on the east side. Because there's no way to be sure that a vehicle isn't stuck on the tracks as a train approaches, the city has to "clear" the tracks every time a train is detected approaching the intersection.

If there are no interruptions, the signal will run through the same order of green lights each time. But it's often interrupted. Sometimes multiple times per cycle.

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

For those driving into the city every day, much of these details remain unseen.

Take Chris Green, a 33-year-old developer at a tech startup in Calgary. He drives to his company's offices in Inglewood on a daily basis in his Toyota Echo.

"I do enjoy driving. It's peaceful, it's quiet," he says.

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

As he nears the community of Inglewood, Green says that perhaps it's his role as a developer that prevents him from getting too worked up about traffic and red lights in the city.

He assumes that there's logic that goes into freeing up busier roadways so that traffic can flow through.

Just blocks away, at the Mobility Operations Centre, scores of engineers would almost certainly happily nod at that assessment.

"It can be complex, as you can see," Patil says. "It can be a huge, challenging job."

WATCH | Calgary's Mobility Operations Centre uses red lights on purpose: