How many times have you waited at a red light wondering why it couldn’t change with no cross-traffic in sight? A Carnegie Mellon faculty specialist in artificial intelligence wondered the same thing—and with his research into real-world problems sponsored by the Hillman Foundation, was in a position to do something about it.
Smith and colleague Greg Barlow created an “adaptive signal network” with detection technology (radar to identify shapes and numbers of moving objects) and processing capabilities at each individual intersection, though the intersections communicated with each other. It became a project called Surtrac, piloting systems at 50 intersections, and now spun off into a for-profit company called “Rapid Flow” that has achieved double digit improvement in systemwide efficiency—measured in travel time reduction and the number of red lights encountered over a given distance. Modeling started in 2011, and experimental operation began a couple years later, rolling out in the East Liberty neighborhood along Baum and Centre Avenues that had once been a commercial core of the city where you’d find shiny Studebaker showrooms, but which had deteriorated and needed the return of a vibrant street grid. With grants from the Federal Highway Administration, the next phase looks to add 150 intersections in neighborhoods like Oakland where the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon are located. Also, buses are getting “dedicated short range communication technology” to help traffic lights recognize them as carrying 60 riders behind schedule rather than just being a single leisurely driver, and experts hope to integrate pedestrians into the equation as well (who in the meantime still have to press a walk button). $30 million in grants are facilitating the continued work.
Lead liaison on Pittsburgh’s involvement as one of seven cities in USDOT’s Smart City program. Loves working for a mayor known for wanting Pittsburgh to be an urban laboratory—as the mayor says, “small enough to get relevant people into a single room to make stuff happen, but big enough that when they do, the world takes notice.”
Alex’s Personal Background
Last name is of Carpatho-Rusyn origin (from the Carpathian mountains of northeast Slovakia—where Andy Warhol came from, too). Grew up in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, went to high school across from Carnegie Mellon, then to DC as undergrad (George Washington University ’11). Worked at Pittsburgh City Council and Pennsylvania State House, joined Mayor’s office in 2014.
Other Startling Facts
Alex and his wife have been competitive ballroom dancers. He and a colleague invented a board game about running for Mayor of Pittsburgh called Ninety (named after the number of neighborhoods in the city).