Management & Operations

Houston, we have bandwidth

Posted on April 9, 2007 by Claire Atkinson, Assistant Editor

How can transit make use of broadband wireless technology that many people are already familiar with at home and in the office?

According to Ben Gibson, senior director of marketing for Cisco’s Wireless and Mobility group, WiFi can be a cost-effective solution for cities or other organizations looking to move their systems to a network that is widely accessible, offers greater bandwidth and shares information between agencies, such as police and fire departments, that had previously been relegated to their own proprietary systems.

Cisco is helping Houston METRO implement a wireless mesh network, which will be used for security and surveillance at 25 park-and-ride facilities.

A mesh network involves the installation of multiple outdoor access points, such as cameras and routers, which are then connected by the wireless system.

Security and surveillance
Erik Oistad, vice president and CIO for Houston METRO, says installation of 350 cameras at the park-and-ride lots was completed in January.

The video surveillance program makes use of imaging technology called video analytics. “It can detect motion, a package that’s been left behind, a car that’s parked in a place where only a bus should be or somebody standing in a place that they shouldn’t be,” Oistad explains.

Such events will be monitored by police officers at Houston TranStar, also known as the Greater Houston Transportation and Emergency Management Center.

“The police officer at our TranStar facility sees this alert pop up, and they make a determination to either cancel the image or dispatch a squad car,” Oistad says. Because of the bandwidth afforded by the wireless network, the city is able to use video cameras that produce a high-quality video feed in real-time, rather than a digital image that refreshes every five seconds like older surveillance cameras, Gibson says.

With the touch of a button, park-and-ride patrons with an emergency or who spot suspicious activities can use the call boxes to be connected with a police officer at the TranStar facility. In addition, the sophisticated technology allows officials to activate the public address system in specific zones to avoid interrupting or annoying patrons in the entire lot or to close the entrance gates at a moment’s notice.

Oistad says transit customers could use the wireless network to surf the Web, or transit employees could download reports in real-time at their various locations, rather than having to do manual data entry at headquarters. Thus, WiFi can serve as both an operational improvement and as a marketing tool for transit.

Traffic management
As part of the same project, Houston METRO is equipping intersections with Cisco wireless and mobile routers.

“With this converged network wireless technology, we’re able to network these intersections together the same way we were able to network the park-and-ride cameras together,” he says. “In fact, it’s all part of the same funding package.” The project was funded through the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program.

The wireless technology will also allow METRO to monitor traffic patterns and use infrared signals from emergency vehicles and city buses to preempt traffic lights or give certain vehicles priority, according to Oistad. This will help keep buses running on time and manage the flow of traffic.

Gibson says the data from the wireless routers and sensors at intersections helps transit authorities determine where they need to provide more capacity, where they need to adjust their traffic metering system and to model traffic patterns during rush hours or in busy areas, such as near a stadium.

“We’re seeing both large, tier-one cities like Houston, as well as medium-sized cities that are starting to aggressively look at broadband wireless,” says Gibson.

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