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Smarter streets

They’re coming soon to Houston.

Houston City Council on Wednesday will consider a $33.6 million contract – partially funded by a $10 million federal grant – to add hundreds of traffic-tracking devices across the city so officials can receive better up-to-date information, respond by adjusting traffic signals and provide current conditions to drivers more quickly.

Freeways in most major cities have traffic detection, cameras and changeable message signs to warn drivers of tie-ups around the area. Some cities also have used the systems along specific corridors.

Houston is taking that approach citywide, optimistic an integrated system can improve traffic, and show drivers their best route choices via signs and traffic maps.

“The ability to visually verify incidents and alert drivers to travel times on parallel alternate arterial and freeway routes will be a benefit,” said Tony Voigt, a Texas A&M Transportation Institute researcher based in Houston. “The ability to better detect vehicles at signals and use that data for signal timing updates at more frequent intervals – and in real-time, if necessary – will be a benefit.”

Proving that, however, can happen only after the devices are in place.

“We have ‘before’ data and we will get ‘after’ data,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works in charge of traffic operations and maintenance. “No one has really done this on this large of scale. That is part of why the federal government gave us this money.”

Voigt, whose office assisted with some of the research for the grant proposal, agreed.

“Will the benefit be as large as compared to freeway (traffic systems)?,” Voigt said. “I would say maybe not, but the benefits should still be considerable.”

Based on federal data, he noted about half the miles traveled in urban areas happen on local roads – not freeways or major highways – so anything aimed at more accurate data for those roads naturally will benefit drivers.

All of the new technology will be integrated into existing traffic operations controlled by Houston TranStar, which combines resources from the city, Harris County, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

This is all good, and I’m sure it will help. Having more and better realtime data about traffic incidents and tie-ups will improve life for lots of people. It’s just that data can only do so much – it can’t improve capacity, it can just move it around. As long as we’re clear on that and realistic about what this can achieve, it’s fine.

Cameras everywhere

Red light cameras get all the attention, but there are a lot more cameras in Houston. This story about the city’s network of surveillance cameras that have been installed by the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security gives some details.

So far, drawing on $14 million in federal grants, the office has installed 330 cameras, of which 266 are providing live feeds to the city network. That network is also tied into 260 cameras installed inside City Hall and other city buildings. TranStar cameras on freeways and Metro’s rail-line surveillance are also hooked up to the system.

Next stop is reaching an agreement to tie into security cameras monitoring streets in the Texas Medical Center, officials said.

There are cameras in the Westchase District, too.

Houston’s journey into the ranks of cities that keep a close watch on their public spaces has been a gradual one – and reviews are mixed.

Civil rights activists view the network with suspicion, while others believe it is a worthwhile use of modern technology in a time of tightened budgets.

Mark Bennett, a criminal defense attorney and former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyer Association, is concerned not only about privacy issues but the potential for abuse.

“I don’t like the government having cameras on me every chance they can get,” Bennett said. “Human beings should have privacy in their lives, and they shouldn’t have to go to seek it out. It should be presumed that our affairs are our own, rather than the government’s. We start to feel like pets in cages with Big Brother looking down on us all the time.”

He believes there is a vast risk that city government, or individual employees, could use the system to spy for their own purposes.

“Imagine a police officer who is concerned about what his wife does during the day, and has his buddies set up the cameras to watch her,” Bennett said. “Having government employees abuse government power for personal purposes is far from unheard of in this town.”

Elsewhere, too. For better or worse, this is the world we live in, and barring any legislative intervention – which would require a sea change in voter attitudes – it’s not going away any time soon. There are benefits to the cameras and there are costs, and so far public opinion sides with those who think the benefits outweigh those costs. I share Bennett’s concerns, but I don’t see anything changing. At the very least, if we’re going to go down this road I’d prefer for it to happen after a thorough public discussion, instead of it just happening behind the scenes while no one is really paying attention, but again I don’t see that happening. There’s plenty of people who want to make red light cameras an electoral issue, and more power to them for trying, but until there’s an equivalent mass making an issue out of all these other cameras, why shouldn’t the Office of Public Safety keep doing what it’s doing?