In 1990 there were 39 thousand motorized vehicles registered in Faulkner County. This included cars, motorcycles, trucks, and buses. Since 1990 that number has increased by almost 2,500 a year. In December 2012 more than 92 thousand vehicles were registered in Faulkner Country. New roads built or widened during that time did not match that 136 percent increase.
So how have we accommodated? In some ways, not well enough. Although new signaling systems were installed, new roads built and old ones widened to three or four lanes, turn lanes constructed at busy intersections, and traffic lights replaced with round-abouts, traffic congestion continues to mount. Unfortunately, when a roadway is upgraded more motorists use it and congestion is only temporarily relieved. Dave Ward Drive in Conway is a good example of a significant improvement producing a significant increase in traffic. Other ways we accommodate additional vehicles is to personally increase travel time and reduce expectations about arriving on time.
As for the next 10 years, we should expect at least an additional 2,500 vehicles every year. How are we going to accommodate this increase in traffic? How are we going to finance the infrastructure that will be necessary?
One way to move more traffic swiftly is to use smart traffic signaling systems. The term smart systems refers to microprocessor devices that sense, actuate and control traffic signals and vehicles. Smart systems are widely used today in household appliances and industrial machinery.
There are several types of smart systems. The simplest, and one that is in use in Conway, is an on-demand response system with sensors at street intersections. These sensors are under the pavement or in cameras near signals. When a vehicle approaches, the sensor actuates the traffic light. This system does not monitor or respond to overall traffic flow on the main corridor, which can result in frequent stops. For example, there are 10 traffic signals on Donaghey Avenue between Dave Ward Drive and Meadow Lake Road. I travel this route daily and rarely make the trip with fewer than 3 stops. Sometimes I stop as many as 6 or 7 times.
A more sophisticated smart system is proposed for Dave Ward Drive. Referred to as an adaptive system, fiber optic cables with sensors parallel the road. Traffic volume and speed are constantly monitored and sent to a computer, which controls signals accordingly. Ideally, you travel the entire length of a corridor with few or no stops.
Finley Vinson, Conway’s traffic engineer, says this proposed system will cost between $350 and $500 thousand. Compared to upgrading the road, where construction costs range from one to six million dollars per mile, smart systems are a bargain. Motorists save as well in terms of time and gasoline used. According to Vinson the adaptive system works best where the traffic signals are far apart.
Unfortunately, two highly congested areas in Conway have numerous signals with short distances between them. One is Donaghey Avenue. The other is East Oak Street from Harkrider to the Conway Commons shopping mall. In that 1.6 miles there are 8 signals.
For roads with a high density of traffic signals, there are promising systems on the horizon being developed by large corporations such as Siemens and IBM. Some systems use cell phones in cars to detect traffic. A cell phone sends out a unique signal if it is turned on, regardless if it is in use. This signal can be picked up and used to monitor traffic. There are applications for cell phones already that use this technology. One is Inrix, which displays traffic congestion along a route. I often use Inrix to determine if traffic is backed up when I travel to Little Rock. Another is Google Maps to plot your location on a map and provide directions.
Siemens Corporation has a pilot program in Harrison County Texas (Houston) that uses cell phone signals to control evacuation routes. When a recent hurricane struck, evacuation routes became paralyzed. With the proposed technology, traffic will be monitored and alternate routes created and disseminated.
Today’s technology is unprecedented and it touches our lives in ways that we are unaware of and could never have imagined. Every industry and service today has been improved by microprocessor technnology. I believe that we will see technology developed in the very near future that greatly improves our driving experiences.
I thank my friend Chris Spatz for editing and helping me with this article.
You can obtain more information on the economy of Conway and Faulkner County by going to the Pulse of Conway website (www.pulseofconway.com).