Toronto Traffic Management Centre
Toronto Traffic Management – 703 Don Mills Road. Click image to enlarge

Article by Steven Bochenek

Ah, Toronto traffic management: from a macro-perspective, it’s a fascinating mélange of animal behavioural theory and MacLuhan-esque cybernetic collaboration. From a micro, it’s a toxic mix of political ill will and swearing.

Thoroughly familiar with the latter, let’s review the former. That is, how does the information flow from the collection technology and between our traffic nerve centre and you, the commuting driver? What infrastructure exists to keep you up to date, how does information flow, and what’s around the proverbial bend?

Given how complicated the system is, it actually works rather well. No, really. Stop laughing. Consider. Each municipality has responsibility over its own roads and infrastructure. However the 400 series of highways, which move through the GTA, is a provincial responsibility. Hence a whole other set of infrastructure.

First, let’s review the City of Toronto’s system. The Traffic Management Centre, aka the nerve centre, is at Don Mills and Overlea. That’s where Rajnath Bissessar, P. Eng., and Manager of Urban Traffic Control Systems, witnesses and co-conducts a messy symphony of traffic every day with all of us players.

The city’s system of traffic-monitoring infrastructure is called RESCU. It includes 869 detector loops embedded in the roadways. Bissessar explained, these “collect speed, volume and occupancy data that is used for incident detection and detecting congestion.”

Controller computers securely housed in the field transmit this data continually to his office in Don Mills. When there’s important news to pass onto commuters, the RESCU system has 24 variable message signs (VMS) at its disposal, 18 of which are usefully portable.

Most helpfully, RESCU has 27 live traffic cameras on the city’s most vital arteries – that is, the Don Valley Parkway, Gardiner Expressway, Allen Road, Lake Shore Boulevard – and a couple of signalized intersections. Have a look. Still images are uploaded every three minutes.

Traffic in TorontoTraffic in Toronto
Traffic in Toronto. Click image to enlarge

Bissessar went on to explain how the system works after the loops collect the data. “A computer program processes the data and then provides the location of potential incidents and recommends possible strategies for signing on the VMS.” So, before any human interactivity with the technology, the system is searching out problems and already suggesting how best to tell you.

RESCU’s cameras have full pan-tilt-zoom functionality. A camera operator watching on remote monitors “confirms the nature and extent of the incident, reviews the suggested signing strategy and then implements the messages on the VMS.” They also alert emergency services, including police, fire and ambulance crews “to assist in incident response activities.”

If you drove past the VMS, fear not. The operators also “distribute the information to the media for widespread dissemination to the public.” What does that entail?

The Urban Traffic Control Systems office has a subscriber list of media outlets that want to be regularly updated. When something important happens on the city’s expressways or Lake Shore, “we issue a Major Incident Report via email to the media.” For a monthly fee, some media outlets have direct access to the RESCU cameras’ live feed. Or, like us, other media can simply view the camera feeds on the website.

Which is all fine for the city, but what if the incident happens on the 401? You’re in Toronto but here it’s a provincial issue. Who updates the media and, ultimately you, now?

Enter the Ontario’s Ministry of Transport (MTO) Freeway Traffic Management System, COMPASS. It’s managed from MTO’s office at Keele and 401. They monitor, alert and direct traffic issues similarly on the 400 series of highways using scores of cameras, which refresh pictures every three to five minutes ( The Ministry’s site also contains useful traveller information, from winter road conditions to interactive maps.

You’d think there’d be rivalry between or redundancy between the two groups but they seem refreshingly cooperative and complementary.

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