Vancouver braces for Olympic traffic nightmare with interactive Web tool

If one thing is certain during the 2010 Winter Olympics, it’s that Vancouver’s traffic is going to hell in a hand basket.

As visitors from around the globe swarm the West coast metropolis, major arteries of public transportation will be closed down and dedicated to handling traffic of Olympic proportions.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games unveiled its transportation plan March 11. It will see major routes to the downtown core closed, streets converted into pedestrian-only areas, and 180 additional buses on the already-jammed city streets.

Hosting the Olympics is sort of like hosting the Superbowl for 17 days straight.

Many locals are fleeing the spectre, choosing to take a vacation away from home when it is bustling with tourists from the rest of the world.

Downtown businesses are being encouraged to give employees time off during the games to cut down on traffic.

But for those who are left behind, transit from one point in the city to another must be planned carefully. Vancouver’s public transportation body, TransLink, is hoping that its interactive iMove Web tool will help make things easier.

“It’s a tool that will better inform travellers so they can make better decisions about transportation,” says Keenan Kitasaka, manager of intelligent transportation systems at TransLink. “It’s not just about the visitors, it’s about the residents who’ll need to know which roads are closed or open so they can get to work.”

Launched in November 2007, is like a Google Map on steroids of Vancouver and its surrounding area. Information on all possible transit modes around the city – air, land or sea – is represented on the map in real time. Motorists can avoid traffic jams indicated by red lines on the highway, transit users can check if their bus is running on time, and ferry passengers can find out how close the boat is to harbour.

A partnership between TransLink, the B.C. Ministry of Transportation, Transport Canada, Western Economic Diversification and the Vancouver Port Authority made the project possible.

It was created to “improve the environment, reduce stress and alleviate the almost $1 billion cost that congestion has on our local economy,” according to the Web site.

It was viewed as too important an application to host in-house, Kitasaka says. So they went to Mississauga, Ont.-based Fusepoint to provide fully managed hosting services for the Web site.

“We make sure the infrastructure below the application is there to allow it to perform at a very high function and in a very secure way,” says George Kearns, president and CEO of Fusepoint. “Folks at TransLink can go to sleep at night and not worry about their application.”

The site has to be accessible by the public 24/7 and also needs to be updated with data from multiple sources in real-time. Through the Regional Condition Reporting System, 11 municipalities in the Vancouver region currently update iMove and seven are soon to be added.

Information fed into iMove includes data pulled from 135 traffic cameras, status information at the border crossing to Seattle, status information on traffic entering two bridges in the city, arrival and departure time at Vancouver International Airport.

The Web tool has deep links into the ferry system, links to public and private bus services, Via Rail lines, and to Washington State’s updates on Interstate 5 as it approaches the border.

“We felt it needed 24/7 attention,” Kitasaka says. “So it’s important that it be hosted at Fusepoint because they have a very proactive datacentre that alerts us whenever there’s a problem.”

Fusepoint was founded in Vancouver in 1999 and moved out east in 2002, but remains a big presence in Vancouver, Kearns says.

The data centre used to host for about 200 customers, including TransLink, has three separate 10 gigabit connections to the Internet. Bell, Shaw and Teleglobe each provide an independent line for a total of 30 gigabits of bandwidth – typically only about 10 to 15 per cent of that capacity is used at any one time. So there’s plenty of room to handle the new traffic from Olympic visitors.

“What TransLink is doing is pretty typical among our customers,” Kearns says. “They’re not a significant enough consumer of bandwidth to force us to move to the next level.”

Daily visitors to the iMove site have been fairly muted so far, Kitasaka says. There are several hundred who use it daily.

TransLink expects this will improve once new data links from Vancouver’s 911 call centre and the Ministry of Transportation are added to the interface.

But the Olympics may the first real test for iMove as it sees a sudden increase in the number of visitors.

As tourists flood the city and the typical routes are drastically altered, everyone and his uncle will be looking for information about transportation.

“We certainly anticipate a spike in the usage of iMove,” the TransLink manager says. “A lot of the traffic will be from visitors not familiar with the metro-Vancouver region.”

The 10,000 square-foot data centre is layered with redundancy, Kearns says. The servers run a consolidated Microsoft operating system and are protected by a firewall. Each server’s work load is evenly balanced and software is constantly scanning for potential problems. Another piece of software applies patches to the servers automatically.

The guarantee to customers is a 99.99 per cent uptime, Kearns says. “That’s not to say there are no interruptions.”

Since iMove was launched, the site has been down on one occasion.

“Last summer there was an underground cable that was damaged in a fire,” Kitasaka recalls. “Somehow that cut off all the data links to downtown Vancouver.”

But Fusepoint was quick to communicate the problem and what they were doing to fix it, he says. When the problem first hit, he was receiving updates every 30 minutes to his BlackBerry about the issue.

After a few days, the problem was fixed. Though Fusepoint wasn’t directly responsible for the outage, it still sent a letter of apology to its customers along with a partial rebate.

The Olympics may give iMove the attention it needs to gain traction in other cities across Canada. Already, several cities have been in discussions with TransLink to acquire the source code and be able to customize it for their own region.

Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary have all expressed interest, Kitasaka says.

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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