Behind The Traffic Cameras: Inside Houston TranStar

Houston, TX is my hometown and home to 2.196 million others (as of 2013) with 125,000 more expected to join our fair city in the next year. That’s a quite impressive statistic, and Houston increasingly becomes an ideal metropolis for commerce and community.

This is an expansion that comes with great impact for our economy, our culture, and it should go without saying, but our emergency management systems and traffic woes as well.

Traffic in Houston - Photo Credit: Houston TranStar

Traffic in Houston – Photo Credit: Houston TranStar

We are an expansive city with a lot of miles (almost 700sq) and a lot of people. Millions of miles of concrete are needed to get us all around; in fact, TXDOT controls enough miles of concrete to get you to the Sun and halfway back! #whoa

Now, that’s a lot of mileage! I mean, raise your hand if you didn’t already know our city is home to the widest freeway on the planet?

Kudos to you Katy Freeway…and you’re still a parking lot half the time!

So, how does one keep emergency response and roadway traffic managed for this massive bustling ‘berg?

One doesn’t…4 agencies do! All under one roof of Houston TranStar!

I had the pleasure to get behind the access-card locked doors of the incredible Houston TranStar facility to find out how the heart of Houston emergency and transportation management pulsed.

Houston TranStar - Photo Credit: Sarah E!

Houston TranStar – Photo Credit: Sarah E!

In 1993, Houston TranStar was established to centralize traffic management for more effective all-around transportation management, and three years later, the Office of Emergency Management was added.

“The goal was to have everything facilitated here under one roof. The collaborative effort makes it easy to coordinate with law enforcement, that helps to ease the implementation of traffic management and emergency response and allows us all to move forward with the same information,” explains Francisco Sanchez, Liaison to the Harris County Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Office of Emergency Management- Photo Credit: Sarah E!

Office of Emergency Management- Photo Credit: Sarah E!

This means, whenever a threatening situation presents itself all branches of city, county and region are present at once to address and execute the city’s appropriate response; anything from shelter in place orders to authorizing and organizing staggered evacuations from the Island.

The agency consolidation was pioneering implementation, with Houston being the first city in the nation to do this.

Of course, the main concern is the daily management of the some 5 million vehicles on our roads and average of 220 daily traffic incidents.

“It’s certainly a fun place to work, because everyday, it’s always something different,” says Dinah Massie, Houston TranStar Public Information Officer.

TranStar keeps our city flowing 24 hours a day from an extensive network of traffic cameras and state-of-the-art traffic technologies.

The camera network is an invaluable component of traffic and emergency management. Houston now boasts a network some 930 cameras large (they started with 12!!) with more cameras steadily being added in the outlying areas as our city’s breadth grows. These cameras allow TranStar to identify traffic problems immediately, dispatch the proper response and send alerts for reports in swift and efficient fashion.

Houston TranStar - Photo Credit: Sarah E!

Houston TranStar – Photo Credit: Sarah E!

Not too shabby.

Another pioneering effort was TranStar’s application of Anonymous Wireless Address Matching  or, AWAM. This is essentially, Bluetooth technology that grabs partial codes from surrounding vehicles and compares them to produce an estimated travel speed. #nifty

What? Did you think they had someone driving all over the city reporting back if they were moving at posted speeds? Well…not anymore, at least 😉

These traffic technologies not only keep responders and city management informed, but you and me too. This is done through the award-winning website houstontranstar.org, where you can look at the exact same cameras and transportation information as the TranStar managers are!

Houston TranStar Control - Photo Credit: Sarah E!

Houston TranStar Control – Photo Credit: Sarah E!

Literally, I was in the observation tower watching the same cameras on my phone as were on the big screens…which was pretty darn cool.

Houston TranStar - Photo Credit: Sarah E!

Houston TranStar – Photo Credit: Sarah E!

With the advanced technologies already in use by Houston TranStar, they are excited for the future plans they have to keep expanding the capabilities of transportation and emergency management.

In addition to adding more cameras as the city grows (including helicopter video feed), they are looking to expand the dedicated transit force to more quickly respond to and resolve traffic problems.

TranStar is as well working with local and federal agencies to expand and refund the SafeClear program, that will return free tows to Houstonians.

Also exciting is new ‘smart’ stoplight technology where traffic cameras can ‘talk’ to each other and make our surface street intersections more interval efficient.

The Houston TranStar management is also in the process of developing a TranStar Traffic app for smart phones so that real-time traffic information is at every commuter’s fingertips. In the interim, their website is fully functional on any mobile phone. 🙂

That is really going to help us better plan our travels around this incredible, large and traffic congested city that we call home!

As all of us know, Houston traffic can be WICKED…

Houston TranStar Control - Photo Credit: Sarah E!

Houston TranStar Control – Photo Credit: Sarah E!

We all have our short cuts, contingency plans, and basic rules of rush-hour (like avoiding the West Loop at all costs), so, it was a revelation to see how the members of our traffic and emergency management teams work in tandem to try and  make response assistance available as soon as humanly possible.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest beyond the trees, especially when you’re seeing red…a red sea of brakelights that makes your inbound drive on 45N from the Woodlands into the Loop a solid 90 minutes, but there are literally thousands of eyes on our roadways, working to ease that time-sucking burden.

Including my own.

As MIX 96.5 ushers in our exciting and dynamic new morning team; Dave, Mahoney and D.K., I will be your eyes on the road and the voice of your morning drive traffic reports.

In wanting to make sure you were going to be getting the most informed perspective, instead of going to the root of the problem, I went to the heart of the solution.

I have very much enjoyed serving you in the midday, but I know you want your Lauren Kelly back (who wouldn’t?!)…and I am honored to help you through the accidents, stalls, snarls and rubbernecker backups that make us all groan and grumble on a daily basis.

One thing we can all agree on though, our traffic may suck…but Houston; she’s the best!

Houston TranStar - Photo Credit: Sarah E!

Houston TranStar – Photo Credit: Sarah E!

Sarah E!

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