Varying departments within the city of Conway have been working together to provide better road infrastructure, traffic results and other improvements to local residents.

The Log Cabin Democrat had the opportunity to talk with city officials Thursday regarding what’s been going on behind the scenes.

The Department of Information Systems and Technology’s Aaron Knight and Finley Vinson, the director of the transportation department and city engineer, sat down with the LCD to talk through the many changes that have been and will continue to occur across Conway, including the adaptive traffic signals for Dave Ward Drive and Oak Street.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, adaptive signal control technologies are used in areas of high traffic demand to create better signal timing solutions during a typical time-of-day period.

“Many studies have shown that adaptive signal control improves average performance metrics [including] travel time, control delay, emissions and fuel consumption, by 10 percent or more,” the department’s website states. “In systems with extremely outdated signal timing, and under saturated conditions, the improvement can be 50 percent or more.”

While the technology is widely used in the U.K., Asia and Australia, less than 1 percent of the U.S. is using it, Conway now included.

The LCD asked Vinson to explain exactly what an adaptive system is and why Conway has decided to use it.

“There are week-long [classes] taught about what an adaptive system is but I’ll take a stab at it in a few sentences,” Vinson laughed.

While “not fully,” AI (artificial intelligence), the director said it was the next step away from that.

“It’s predictive analytics used to apply to the modeling the traffic,” Knight said, Vinson agreeing.

Vinson said the goal of a well-timed signal system is good progression and what’s important there is because the signals are not directly communicating with one another, they have to communicate with the server in order to know when signal A and signal B turn green.

“So, that hopefully, we can get good progression which means that hopefully cars going in one direction or the other, or in a perfect world, both directions, won’t have to stop,” he said.

Historically, Vinson said, the way that is achieved is by hand. A traffic engineer — he's done it before — has to go out and count traffic manually at an intersection and then use that data to create a model and then plug those numbers into controllers.

“It’s time consuming and it can be flawed,” he said. “There are several weak links. One is the manual counting of traffic and the other weak link is the problem with the presumption that, during that one day in time that the traffic was counted is … that’s representative of all the other days of the year.”

Conway’s traffic, however, is always changing. Knight acknowledged that this week is spring break in a college town.

“Hence, the word adaptive,” Vinson said. “The biggest difference is it uses a combination of sensors and cameras to detect traffic and the timing automatically adapts based on traffic patterns.”

Knight gave an analogy to describe it all a little better. He said if a person’s left arm can move independently and the right arm can do the same, great, but then “put in a brain,” and now both arms can move at the same time, linking everything together, working in the right manner to produce an outcome.

“The entirety of the traffic network is really dictating those pieces working in sequence with each other to maximize efficiency,” he said.

Vinson said that was “completely accurate,” and said that explanation further explains why reliable communication — the city also recently went through an entire IT upgrade to link traffic lights — is so critical.

“It’s heavily dependent on two things,” he said. “It’s dependent on the sensors that are counting the traffic but then it’s got to communicate the information that each signal gets from those sensors, it’s got to communicate it back to the server and the server processes that information and then pushes it back down to all of the signals. So, you’ve got to have very reliable two-way communication in order for that system to work.”

That, again, is where the city’s IT upgrade comes in, which can be read in the Log Cabin Democrat’s Friday issue as well.

Conway’s Communication Coordinator Bobby M. Kelly III said that from Mayor Bart Castleberry’s perspective, the city knows it has “made a name” for themselves building roundabouts — there 27 roundabouts and close to 60 traffic signals — to help reduce traffic congestion, but that’s not all.

“We’re fully aware that our city still has lights and good old fashioned traffic signals and that despite the fact that we’ll continue to push forward when it comes to building the roundabouts, we’re not going to neglect the needs of traffic signals and we’re not going to forget how they fit into our overall traffic picture,” he said. “You see that with the IT infrastructure upgrade, with working well with Conway corp as always on that, by getting the communication back up so our people can do their jobs quickly.”

Kelly said he doesn’t want anyone to be confused where the mayor stands on that.

“He is pro streets and pro infrastructure but he’s still a practical man,” he said. “We’ve been bitten by the roundabout bug but we’re not forgetting everything else.”

The adaptive signals, Kelly said, will analyze, collect and report data. He added that the clear outcome would be in the reduction of times a person stops and improving the amount of time they have to sit there in the light delay.

As for where, the adaptive signals will be put on Dave Ward Drive and, eventually, Oak Street.

Vinson said his first year working with the city — nine years ago — he was the traffic engineer and said they needed to work on getting the adaptive signals on both.

“It’s expensive and it’s an uphill battle but I’m really excited that we’re finally getting that done,” he said. “It’s been on my mind for a long time.”

Vinson said after working during most of 2013 to put together grants and submit them, they found out in 2014 they had been awarded.

“That just speaks to how complex this project is,” he said.

When awarded, Vinson said, Conway was one of just a handful of other municipalities in the state — just two or three others — and it was the first time a grant of that kind had ever been awarded at the state level.

“It was the first time the state had ever installed an adaptive signal system as part of a grant project and not part of a larger improvement project,” he said. “Everybody — Metroplan, the state, and us — all had to dot a lot of I's and cross a lot of T’s in order to figure out how to make the system come alive. It’s been worth the work.”

To read more about what the city has on its to-do list, check out the other story in the Log Cabin Democrat’s Friday edition by reporter Hilary Andrews.