Some people collect stamps. Others gather rare baseball cards. Jonathan Melby and Angela Buffington, however, prefer to collect something quite different: traffic cameras.
Not the actual cameras themselves. Rather, Melby and Buffington have, since 2006, maintained a massive database recording where thousands of red light and speed cameras are located throughout North America. This database now has 3,699 red light cameras and 1,413 speed cameras — although that could change as the list is updated each week.
Melby and Buffington allowed us to use their decade’s worth of research to create this interactive map, which shows the location of each camera.
This map is likely missing at least some traffic cameras somewhere in the United States. But with about 5,000 in the database — and reports of cameras being installed or moving each week — Melby and Buffington think they have a pretty good representation of America’s traffic camera network. I spoke with the two of them last week about what they’ve learned collecting all this data on thousands of traffic cameras scattered across the United States.
Washington is far from the largest city in the country, but the metro area has the dubious distinction of being home to the largest collection of traffic cameras — more than New York City, which has millions more residents.
Washington also apparently stands out for traffic camera innovation. It’s one of the few cities Buffington knows of that has started implementing “stop sign cameras,” which are, as the name suggests, embedded in stop signs rather than in traffic lights. The city maintains a list of stop sign cameras and their locations here.
Melby doesn’t go on cross-country road trips looking for traffic cameras. He relies a lot on all sorts of eyes and ears on the ground.
“We track news reports, file information requests, and that’s pretty much a full-time process,” he says. “We publish updates every week.”
Some cities, he says, are great about responding to information requests. He remembers firing off a letter to Miami, and the city “happily provided a report back to us.”
But other cities are way more secretive about where they place traffic cameras. The worst offender, Buffington says, is New York City.
“We have filed multiple requests to the New York City Department of Transportation, and we get responses back that say things like, ‘In response to your request ... please advise that your request has been denied pursuant to such and such,’” she says. “We did have one of our members who, a few years back, actually took one of the entities to court. They settled, and he got some information. But that’s what it took.”
In order to map New York City, Buffington and Melby rely much more on reports from drivers in the city.
Buffington handles much of the day-to-day work of updating the traffic camera listings. It’s probably fair to say that in the entire country, she has the best grasp on when they tend to get installed and moved.
I asked Buffington to tell me a bit about what she saw, any patterns that emerged. One thing she notices is the places where city officials move the traffic lights around — or never change them at all.
Phoenix stood out to her as a place where the traffic lights stay put; officials never move them around to new locations. Maryland, on the other hand, is a place where she sees lots of changing locations.
“Chicago also put in a lot of new park cameras, just for their parks and school zones, and those do tend to move around,” Buffington says. “New York, I just saw an article about where they’re planning on relocating 25 cameras. But they’re not telling the public which ones are moving.”
One big source of information for the duo is everyday drivers, who might be the first to spot a new traffic camera or one that moved. Melby and his co-workers do check those reports against public records, especially when it’s a first-time contributor. And one of the things Melby sees is that what we often think to be cameras tracking our speed and our stops — well, they aren’t.
“We sometimes get reports from states that don’t even authorize traffic cameras saying, ‘There’s this camera sitting right next to the light, I think they’re trying to check if we’re speeding through it,’” Melby says.
If you’d like to up your traffic camera spotting skills, Melby notes that there are two main manufacturers in the United States: RedFlex and ATS. You can see what their cameras look like here and here. Other boxes are sometimes just boxes, with no power to issue tickets at all.