Eye on Traffic: New York Investigates Impact of Video on Environment

Aug 26, 2008

High gas prices, concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, and global warming have been all over the news this summer, and at the forefront of international discussion. Though global in nature, these problems are often combated locally, whether it’s by carpooling, recycling, or tax incentives for hybrid cars and solar panels. New York is hoping a partnership with Trafficland might help clean up the state’s skies and will conduct a one-year investigation into the energy and environmental benefits of improving the delivery of traffic video information to the public. 

TrafficLand’s TVISN (Transportation Video Information Sharing Network) will be installed at NYSDOT Traffic Management Centers to increase available video update rates and expand access to the public, first responders, media and others. Made possible by joint funding from New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), information from the state’s existing traffic cameras is now available to the public, through Trafficland.com.

Trafficland’s founder and CEO, Lawrence Nelson, says he has a background in video surveillance and wanted to bring that knowledge to the internet. Back in 2000, Nelson got Trafficland up and running, but remained mostly a regional company, working in the Washington D.C., Virginia and Maryland areas, until 2005 when other states started contacting them. "We decided to strike out and explore a little bit," says Nelson.

Trafficland takes existing video feeds from traffic cameras, and makes it available to the public through its website, or through a client’s website. Usually it is departments of transportation using Trafficland’s services, though they also have clients like The Washington Post and CBS Radio. While the clients pay for Trafficland’s services, website users get access to the live feeds for free--or for $6 a month if you don’t want to deal with advertisements and breaks in the action.

The trick to making the cost of providing this information less prohibitive is using JPG images captured from every few seconds of video, rather than live streaming video. When a user clicks on a camera they see 30 seconds of feed and then they will be prompted to restart if they wish to keep monitoring. This prevents people from leaving the feed running all day and draining resources.

Still, one can’t help but wonder: how does video from traffic cameras get turned into useable data for a study on energy and environmental benefits? "It’s very difficult and I don’t think there is a quantitative way to do that," says Sal Craver, NYSERDA spokesman. Nelson says his company will be providing NYSERDA with usage information: "If 10 people are using it, then it won’t have much of an impact." Of course, the hope is that far more people will use the cameras. Nelson says the number of users in the Washington D.C. area quadrupled between 2005 and 2008.

Craven says, "One of Trafficland’s purposes, and one of its success stories, will be if its use is translated into efficient driving. If our consumption rate is decreasing I think you can attribute that to more efficient usage." Basically, NYSERDA and NYDOT hope that drivers will use Trafficland to check their routes before heading out the door, and when they see a traffic jam they will plan an alternate route or wait it out, rather than heading blindly out onto the roads and idling in traffic, using valuable resources and emitting noxious gases.

"Because of the mobility of ourselves with technology…this is now real-time, all-time access," says Craven. Nelson says Trafficland has some new mobile applications in the works, and if you’re just a traffic-junkie, you can use its widgets to post your favorite camera on your blog or Facebook page.

Nelson says many traffic sites simply show a map and a green, yellow or red line: "The thing about video is that people trust it 100%... It’s either available and correct, or not available."

(www.nyserda.org, www.trafficland.com)