On a large split-screen projector at the National Roads Authority’s headquarters, aerial footage shows tiny rectangular shapes moving across the Hurley’s roundabout.
As the camera pans towards George Town, the video stream on the left shows a familiar scene: Slow-moving vehicles merging into a multicoloured train of traffic that snakes all the way back to the capital. This is a typical evening commute.
The right side of the screen seems virtually identical. But something is different and it takes a moment to realise what it is … the traffic is moving.
This, according to the NRA, is what the commute could look like in 2021. Even with an increase in vehicles factored in, cars will move more freely along a remodelled network of expanded lanes and connector roads.
Five ‘quick-win’ projects, some of them already under way, are planned over the next two years.
The authority believes they will help shave critical time off morning and evening commutes. This expectation no longer involves just guesswork. The roads have already been built in the virtual world of the NRA’s new $50,000 VISUM software programme.
A virtual sandbox
The simulator, loaded with thousands of data points about Cayman’s road network, can be used to test the potential impact of any major project.
Want to see what Cayman’s roads would look like with 10,000 more vehicles? The software can peer into the future and show you.
Want to test the impact of public transport, carpooling or a road-pricing system? It can do that, too.
How about a causeway across the North Sound or a flyover at the Hurley’s roundabout? All these projects can be built and tested in the virtual world long before anyone starts pouring concrete.
The software, from German firm Planung Transport Verkehr AG, is a little like the video game SimCity – a virtual sandbox where engineers can play around with different ideas and see what works.
“The beautiful part about the model is you can put anything in and see what’s going to happen,” says Edward Howard, managing director of the NRA.
Initially the software has been used to reinforce the case for a series of ‘quick-win’ projects and to demonstrate their expected impact on traffic.
Perhaps just as critically, it is also being used to demonstrate what won’t work.
According to Howard, doing nothing as Cayman continues to grow is pretty much a worst-case scenario.
The authority’s consultants have plugged in work permit data and population estimates, extrapolating out as far as 2036. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with 100,000 people and potentially 70,000 cars on Cayman’s current road network, the island would grind to a halt.
“The model has already told us that it’s looking pretty bleak. That won’t work. So then it’s like, OK, now what can we do?” Howard said.
‘We can’t build our way out of this’
The main goal of the quick-win projects scheduled over the next two years is not to absorb future growth, says Denis Thibeault, of the NRA’s transportation and planning unit. They are needed now.
More lanes and a better-connected road network can make a difference for a short time. But if population and car ownership continue to grow, the models show it will only be a matter of time before the traffic jams are back and bigger than ever.
“We recognise we can’t build our way out of this,” says Howard.
Public transport, new centres of employment outside of George Town, congestion charges and import limitations will all combine in a coordinated solution, says Infrastructure Minister Joey Hew.
Government has budgeted for consultants to provide a comprehensive national transport study by the end of the year.
The NRA also hopes to use its software to work with partner agencies, including the Department of Planning, to help inform development decisions.
The technology can test both the positive impact of public transport and the negative effect of new development to help influence government policy.
The airport is one area where it has already been used to project the potential impact of an infrastructure project.
NRA engineers ran a simulation of what George Town’s roads would look like if a section of Crewe Road was closed to allow for the extension of the runway through to the end of the cricket pitch.
Their conclusion was that this construction would have a disastrous impact on traffic. A journey from Owen Roberts International Airport to Grand Harbour at 5pm on a weekday took 90 minutes in that simulation.
Ultimately, the software suite is just one tool in what Howard says must be a ‘multi-pronged’ approach to planning for Cayman’s future growth.
The model can show solutions but it does not assess cost, practicality or environmental impact.
It will be up to government to decide the best approach, using the data alongside many other considerations.
Minister Hew said the aim was to make sensible tweaks to the road system alongside other strategies to enhance public transport and reduce car ownership.
He said a transport master plan was in the works and the current slate of road works, budgeted at just over $40 million for the next two years, can help ‘buy time’ to put that plan into action.