San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Traffic Jams to Meet New Foe

San José’s notoriously congested streets will breathe easier this week with the launch of a new system of “smart stoplights.”

About 180 of San José’s 325 most agonizing downtown intersections will benefit in this first stage, allowing for more fluid movement of cars through the center of the city, officials announced this week at the city’s state-of-the-art TrafficControlCenter.

The plan calls for lights at the remaining 145 intersections, most of them in outlying areas of the city, to be operational by the end of December.

The outlying Central Valley cities of Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago will also benefit by 2009.

The $4.6 million project is the first of its kind in Central America, said Viviana Martín, of the Roadway Safety Council (COSEVI).

“This is the first step in regaining control of streets,” she said.

The Intelligent Transport System (ITS), as it is known, uses real-time video cameras positioned above the city’s busiest intersections, in conjunction with eight traffic specialists based in the control center, to ensure that traffic jams meet a quick demise. For the first time, traffic flow will be measured throughout the city by “car-counting” cameras, explained Junior Araya, a representative from Semáforos Mexicanos (SEMEX), which designed and installed the system.

That information will take three months to accumulate, he said, at which point traffic will reach maximum efficiency.

“The effects won’t be immediate, but they will be noticeable,” he said. The day of the inauguration, taxi driver Rodolfo Rodríguez, said he could already tell the difference.

“I’d stopped working in the city. Too much traffic. But it’s been just one day and traffic is already more fluid. If they keep working like they say, I’ll come back,” he said.

Others weren’t so sure.

Street vendor Edgar Aguilar, who sells newspapers at the intersection beside the National Bank building in downtown San José each morning, wasn’t so sure.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said. “I haven’t noticed any less traffic today than any other day.”

Public Works and Transport Minister Karla González made clear that the new system “doesn’t work miracles.”

She said the new lights will reduce wait times – but not eliminate them altogether.

According to Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, who also attended the ceremony, the new lights “will offer a direct benefit to the population, improving quality of life and taking the country another step in its path to development.”

The TrafficControlCenter – its sterile, modern profile a striking contrast amidst the clutter of San José – houses seven viewing screens and six computer stations from which officials enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the city’s busiest intersections.

From above, one can’t help but envision an accident waiting to happen. Motorcycles swerve recklessly in and out of traffic. Cars speed through lights. Pedestrians swarm sidewalks and intersections, inches from motor vehicles.

SEMEX’s Araya put out this disclaimer: “Many have the false expectation that we’ll simply press a button and the traffic will disappear. The problems here go beyond traffic lights.”

The day after the system took effect, The Tico Times walked from the Coca Cola Bus Station, in San José’s still-congested center, roughly two kilometers east on Avenida 2, looking for a traffic officer to comment.

None could be found.



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