Freeways featured in real-time Internet video

More than 1,000 television cameras are scattered around the state, capturing images of key freeways and intersections–including real-time coverage in dozens of locations that can be accessed through the Internet. In many cases, the new imagery far surpasses the jerky, stop-frame video of years passed.

Unlike the law-enforcement cameras that nab red-light runners, the Caltrans video isn’t intended to catch speeders–if fact, they are specifically prevented from being used for that purpose. Instead, the coverage is designed to alert the public to crashes, traffic jams and assorted hazards, such as toxic spills, mudslides, washouts, road damage, crash debris and the like. It sounds like science fiction, but with the steady proliferation of Wi-Fi hot spots, it is becoming possible for a passenger with a laptop to check out in real time the traffic flow on a freeway miles away.

“The pictures are beamed into our Transportation Management Centers across the state, where the images are used to verify reported incidents and to dispatch the appropriate response. We are making some of these pictures available on this web page so commuters can make informed decisions as to when to take a trip on the freeway,” Caltrans says on its Web site.

Internet-savvy motorists already can find out about highway problems by looking at Caltrans’ road-conditions report, a popular site that gives up-to-the-minute information on closures and detours. The site, one of the state’s most frequently viewed, is especially useful during the winter when drivers, heading into the Sierra Nevada, the Tejon Pass or the high deserts, face weather conditions that can change from benign to severe in an hour. But the video adds an extra dimension, offering a real image instead of bare numbers on a page.

Not all the cameras transmit movie-quality video and not all broadcast publicly accessible images. For example, scores of cameras monitoring three tunnels and seven bridges in the San Francisco are used as a Homeland Security tool, employing a sophisticated blend of wireless technology and deep encryption to aid security efforts. The $20 million system was set up five years ago by Caltrans as a pilot project to capture images that can be beamed to a command center in Oakland. According to Government Technology magazine, the system could transmit secure data at 90 Mbps over 16 miles. “The beauty of using wireless is you don’t have to [dig a] trench across the parking lot,” Jeff Or of Proxim Corp., which supplied the wireless technology, told Government Technology.
Statewide, however, the system is largely cabled.

Caltrans spokesman David Anderson said the video operation was updated last year to include smooth-motion imagery, although most of the 1,000-plus cameras provide only still-shots. The cameras cost $2,000 to $3,000 each, although that cost does not include installation. They each have a range of about a mile in either direction, and the cameras cover about 550 miles of California highways, Anderson said.

Online, there are direct links to some 70 specific freeway locations, such as U.S. 80 at Kingvale in the Sierra, 101 at Patterson Avenue in Santa Barbara and westbound Highway 22 at Garden Grove. There are also single links to multiple cameras. For example, there are six links to the Inland Empire, each of which provides images from a half-dozen or more cameras in an automatic, timed rotation. One of the links, identified as the DeVore project along U.S. 15, provides imagery from 10 cameras.

Similarly, four direct links to the San Diego system each have multiple
cameras, and include coverage of Interstate 8 in Mission Valley, I-805 in crowded corridor between I-8 and I-5 north of La Jolla.

In two largely rural areas, northwestern California and the northeastern part of the state, the links are hooked to maps that list camera locations. The northwest includes Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake and Mendocino counties, while the northeastern quadrant includes Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama, Trinity, Lassen, Modoc and Plumas counties.

In all, the public can access some 275 cameras through the Caltrans Web site.

The images aren’t necessarily compelling: One collection of time-sequence images–the full-motion video wasn’t working–on U.S. 101 south of Crescent City showed only one vehicle passing in six hours, and the final two frames were deep black, because the cameras were unable to take pictures after dark set in. Sometimes, the cameras are shaken by high winds, giving an irritating wobble to the images. Sometimes, snow, fog or rain result in a white-out–literally.

The upshot of all these video hookups is that from a coffee shop near the state Capitol, one can watch clogged eastbound traffic on Highway 94 slowly departing downtown San Diego, view the nexus of Interstates 80 and 680 east of San Francisco or watch eight lanes of traffic on the Hollywood Freeway. It’s not American Idol, but it’s useful.

“It’s just another way for people to check traffic and get information before they get in a car,” Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers once said.

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