Building a Smart Traffic Infrastructure in Palo Alto

By analyzing traffic patterns and parking availability, Palo Alto says it will not only make its streets safer and reduce congestion, but also play a part in the future of transportation.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Mar 02, 2016

Pressures on ever-growing cities become more intense every day, and those pressures—to improve city services, fill potholes, fight crime and make commutes less of a nightmare—are not likely to let up. More than half of the global population currently live in cities, and that share is expected to reach 70 percent by 2025, according to the United Nations.

But Jonathan Reichental—who, since late 2011, has served as chief information officer for the city of Palo Alto, Calif.—thinks that cities, when planning and budgeting for their infrastructure, should take a long-term view of their evolution. "There are different levels of city employees," he told IOT Journal. "Some are just focused on tomorrow—and I mean that literally, not the day after tomorrow, just tomorrow—so planning a different future isn't even part of their purview." But it is critical, he says, for cities to devote resources to thinking about the future and about how "applying technology in a city context might be able to help with the big intractable issues, like traffic and energy management."

A parking sensor gateway
In Palo Alto—a Silicon Valley town, home to Stanford University and a population that is quickly growing beyond the 66,000 residents it had as of a 2013 count—thinking about the future is Reichental's job. And he has chosen to start with traffic lights.

Granted, Reichental's first step—upgrading the city's decades-old electro-mechanical traffic light controllers to a computerized system—was not a major technology leap. But what that transition has enabled, he says, will become one. "Fortunately, our traffic signals are located close to our 44-mile fiber network," he says, "so the traffic signals could be Internet-enabled, becoming nodes at the edge of the city's network."

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