The province is considering implementing variable speed limits and other innovations to help improve traffic flow on Deerfoot Trail.
Stop-and-go Deerfoot Trail may soon become slow-and-go during peak hours as the province eyes potential innovations to improve traffic flow on Calgary’s primary artery.Variable speed limits are among a suite of outside-the-box options being considered for the 37.5-kilometre strip of highway running north-south through the heart of the city, whose rush-hour gridlock has long been a frustrating reality for Calgary commuters.Last week, the province issued a request for proposals to begin planning and design work on short-term improvements to the critical thoroughfare, which sees a daily average of as many as 170,000 vehicles at its busiest point. The tweaks are among those identified as potential quick fixes to trouble spots while the province undertakes a study examining broader improvements, expected to be completed later this year.But along with three proposed construction projects, the province is also looking into so-called intelligent traffic systems, exploring such innovations as variable speed limits, ramp metering, carpool lanes and variable message boards, with the aim of improving commuting times and safety.“The whole point of variable speed limits is to slow people down before they get to a bottleneck,” said Jerry Lau, Alberta Transportation’s infrastructure manager for southern Alberta.“We’re trying to slow people down but also increase safety.”Variable speed limits are flexible restrictions that fluctuate in real time based on traffic flow and road conditions, to pinpoint the gas pedal sweet spot and keep vehicles moving at a steady pace. Strategically placed digital message boards would continually update current speed limits while warning drivers of potential hazards ahead.
A view of Deerfoot Trail from the community Diamond Cove on Tuesday, February 19, 2019, in the city’s southeast. The province is looking at upgrading the freeway. Al Charest/Postmedia
Lau noted proposed innovations are still only concepts to be considered by the design team chosen by the province. The ideas will likely form some of the recommendations in the final technical study and may eventually become reality.The concept of variable speed limits as a tool to improve traffic flow is not new.Former University of Calgary engineering student Karan Arora authored a study in 2017 that found variable speed limits on major thoroughfares could shave several minutes off the average commuter’s rush-hour drive time, while making those trips 30 per cent safer, as well.The study, which focused on a 13-kilometre stretch of southbound Deerfoot, found that under ideal conditions driving speeds would improve by about five minutes, while off-peak hours would see drivers arrive at their destinations 10 minutes faster.Washington State implemented variable speeds along three major highways in 2010 with a price tag of $65 million. Four years after its launch, a study found the initiative improved rush-hour drive times by as much as 24 km/h while reducing collisions by four per cent over a six-year period.Lau noted the province is also considering variable speed limits for parts of the QEII Highway between Calgary and Edmonton, though the concept remains in its early stages.In addition to studying variable speed limits and the requisite message boards, the province is also considering ramp metering, which would see traffic signals on on-ramps to reduce the flow of traffic onto Deerfoot during periods of high congestion.“They would only release traffic when there are gaps in traffic flow to allow for it,” said Lau, adding that adopting dedicated carpool lanes on Deerfoot would be another way to improve flow by potentially taking more cars off the road.Lau noted whichever improvements and innovations are ultimately adopted, Deerfoot will always be a magnet for gridlock given its importance in Calgary’s transportation network.“People do need to temper their expectations,” he said.“Deerfoot will never be free-flowing. It’s always going to be bad.”Calgary Coun. Shane Keating, who chairs the city’s transportation committee, said Deerfoot has been in desperate need of improvements to alleviate congestion for years, so any innovation to help improve traffic flow is welcome.“I’m for anything that will work until we do a final fix on Deerfoot,” he said.“We do know we can’t keep making more and more lanes and expect the problem to alleviate itself.”Keating noted that beyond a few hours every day when Deerfoot sees traffic grind into a daily crunch, it remains “a pretty good road.” So if tinkering with speed limits and restricting the level of access can improve its flow, he hopes it will improve the sometimes dim outlook commuters feel toward the freeway.Lau said it’s hoped some of the short-term fixes identified during the first phase of the study can be implemented soon, including a northbound connection from 11th Street N.E. and the addition of a northbound auxiliary lane between McKnight Boulevard and 64th Avenue N.E. Recommendations for a so-called basket weave bridge connector are aimed at alleviating a common trouble spot on southbound Deerfoot between Southland Drive and Anderson Road.He added none of the work has been given funding approval in the province’s infrastructure plan, so any work would still require commitments from the provincial government before moving firstname.lastname@example.orgOn Twitter: @ShawnLogan403