The future of open city streets could start with smarter traffic lights

In 2009, the billionaire industrialist Henry Hillman decided his hometown of Pittsburgh could do better. Its traffic congestion problems weren’t as bad as those of most large US cities, but Hillman had the means to do something about them. His foundation donated to CMU with a writ to work on solutions—a prompt that eventually led to Traffic21, an institute charged with devising novel transportation tech and using the city as a lab to test it.

Hillman’s grant came at a time when Pittsburgh was looking to reinvent itself. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl dreamed of leading the postindustrial steel town into a new era built on research and entrepreneurship. Traffic21’s executive director, Stan Caldwell, began searching for where to start. Civil engineers consistently pointed to the proliferation of traffic cameras: The tools offered lots of data about how folks moved around, but the people sitting in control rooms didn’t have the training to manage or interpret it. “They were saying, ‘We don’t know how to turn that data into information,’” Caldwell recalls.