All Together Now

Traffic Lights Slowly Move Toward Synchronization

Traffic-clogged intersections, such as this one on E. 
Seventh, are common sights in Austin.
Traffic-clogged intersections, such as this one on E. Seventh, are common sights in Austin. (Photo By John Anderson)

A medley of obscenities, groans, and golden oldies are the order of the day as Carrie Keith steers her bronze Chevrolet truck down Congress Avenue during a recent Tuesday afternoon rush hour. "You know that everyone is just going nuts within their own bubble of their cars," says Keith, who is headed to her job at Barton Creek Square mall, just as most drivers are inching their way homeward. Another red light and Keith groans again. "Sometimes it's like I hit every light till I get to MoPac." While light rail proponents are honing their "messaging system" to increase their chances of winning voter approval of the rail issue in November, there's a slew of drivers on Congress who'd be thankful if all the lights would just change in order.

Well, if this is Congress Avenue, that ain't going to happen. While traffic engineers have already synchronized signals on most major thoroughfares in the city -- part of a $20 million project to be completed in October 2001 -- Congress is the one place that's deliberately left out of sync to allow for bus traffic and a smoother east-west traffic flow, says Matthew Kite, assistant director of public works.

On the other hand, South First and South Lamar are pretty much synchronization success stories -- in part because of the lack of major four-way intersections. Depending on the time of day and the amount of traffic on the street, it's now possible to drive north on South First, say from Ben White to Town Lake, in half the time it took in the pre-sync days.

Remember back in 1998 when voters approved a $152 million bond election for roadwork and other transportation projects? As part of the bond, a portion was appropriated to upgrade the city's traffic signal system. For those who think the city is running far behind schedule on this front, you're not alone. In fact, the city is actually playing catch-up with other Texas cities. Larger cities (San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth), as well as smaller ones (Amarillo, Lubbock) have coordinated systems already in place, but considering Austin's rapid growth and geography, the city is not too far behind, says Tim Lomax, research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute, a research hub at Texas A&M University.

Flatter, less populated cities like Lubbock are easier to synchronize, while big cities -- bigger than Austin, that is -- have had a longer history of traffic congestion, which forced them to begin trying to remedy the situation long ago, Lomax says. "Austin is finally realizing that it is a grown-up city," he continues. "It's coming to grips with its size. This is fairly typical of cities that have experienced the kind of growth it has experienced."

Part of Austin's traffic system upgrade is the newly constructed state-of-the-art traffic management center on Toomey Road, where engineers will be able to monitor busy intersections and quickly fix malfunctioning light signals. Where Austin lags behind on synchronization, it's well ahead of other cities in terms of having a traffic center that is so technologically advanced, Lomax adds.

As for synchronizing traffic lights, there are other advantages apart from saving precious drive-time minutes on a trip to the dry cleaner. According to the Denver Regional Council of Governments, the benefits of improved traffic signal coordination include: reduced auto air pollution, improved roadway efficiency, decreased fuel consumption, and, ultimately, cleaner air, which in Austin is creeping dangerously close to "non-attainment" status.

Red Light, Green Light

Ask a city traffic engineer when light coordination efforts began and he'll tell you synchronization has been part of the city's traffic system for over 20 years. But Council Member Daryl Slusher would submit that an actual meaningful effort began three years ago.
Public Works' Matthew Kite
Public Works' Matthew Kite (Photo By John Anderson)

Statewide, the issue of coordinating traffic signals heated up in earnest in 1989, when then-Gov. Bill Clements declared that $5.2 million of the state's oil overcharge funds -- money awarded to Texas when a price-fixing lawsuit against oil companies was settled in the early 1980s -- would be used to enhance synchronization of traffic lights throughout the state. As a part of this effort, Austin received $312,000 in oil overcharge money from 1990 to 1992. The city spent $109,000 of its own money for a total of $421,000 spent on traffic synchronization. The next infusion of money -- $234,000 -- was made between 1992 and 1994, with $108,000 going to the city.

Austin spent this oil money on synchronizing traffic signals, except that most people apparently didn't notice. In a 1997 survey of 1,200 residents, the Austin Transportation Study (now known as CAMPO), traffic light synchronization ranked as the No. 1 priority for traffic improvements. About that same time, the City Council (namely Slusher, a staunch light sync advocate), began pressuring the city's public works department to improve the existing light system. "They weren't doing all they could," Slusher says.

Slusher has since changed his tune. To prove that synchronization isn't just a myth, Slusher took this reporter on a traffic light synchronization tour. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Slusher is traveling the lengths of South Lamar and South First, which is nearly free of red lights. He drives east on Riverside and then cuts across to head north to Airport, finally returning to his office downtown. The last leg of the trip holds more frequent stops, but overall the ride is fairly seamless. "It's a real sign that things are finally turning around," he says. "I think the city should have had this kind of thing long ago, but there's no sense in me talking about what was done wrong in the past. I'm interested in making it work better ... now."

Still, a coordinated light system can only do so much, Slusher adds.

There's some who will argue that the city hasn't done much of anything toward synchronization. "The city isn't doing it," says Mike Levy, publisher of Texas Monthly. "If we were talking about salamanders instead of human life, the city would be going nuts."

Congestion's Causes

If traffic seems worse now than it ever has, that's because it is. In the eyes of number crunchers, that's a sign of a healthy economy, but to everyone else, it's sheer frustration. Top that off with road construction or new buildings going up downtown and you've got yourself a real nightmare. Each street lane is capable of allowing about 1,800 vehicles to travel through it in an hour.

"If you lose a lane, whammo, you're now at rush hour [with] 400 or 500 cars that can't make it through that signal like they used to make it six months ago," says Kite. "Loss of lanes due to construction affects us."

Besides a growing population, construction, movie productions, and an influx of cultural events, over which the city has little control, there is also a series of traffic system shortcomings that contribute to the tie-ups.

The first is the city's inability to identify problems in traffic signals when they arise.

The city lacks sufficient staff to monitor all the intersections and must rely on citizen complaints to identify the vast majority of their problems. Ali Mozdbar, the city's traffic signal system manager, estimates that 80% to 90% of traffic light problems are reported by drivers. Traffic signal malfunctions can take two or three days to be identified and corrected, and they have been known to persist as long as 10 days, Mozdbar says.

Believe it or not, most of Austin's major streets 
(indicated in black) already have synchronized light 
signals in place. Traffic is expected to flow more 
smoothly, however, once the entire $20 million, 
citywide light signal synchronization project is 
completed next year. Congress Avenue is one of the 
few downtown streets that is not synchronized 
because of bus traffic and heavy east-west flow.
Believe it or not, most of Austin's major streets (indicated in black) already have synchronized light signals in place. Traffic is expected to flow more smoothly, however, once the entire $20 million, citywide light signal synchronization project is completed next year. Congress Avenue is one of the few downtown streets that is not synchronized because of bus traffic and heavy east-west flow.

Additionally, the existing system is incapable of either alerting the city of malfunctions or "self-correcting" the type of blips that cause the traffic signals to go into blink mode. "It's like the 12 o'clock, 12 o'clock that your VCR blinks," Kite says. For that reason, engineers must manually reset the traffic signals. Timing is another problem. Each signal has its own clock, which regulates when the light changes color. If the clock is malfunctioning, the lights are no longer synchronized. Unfortunately, the system is not capable of alerting operators that the timing is off. "So all of a sudden you have such a big difference between signals that it doesn't work," says Mozdbar.

Synchronized Solution

The city's new traffic management center looks like the bridge of the USS Enterprise. The heart of this $20 million project to upgrade the city's traffic signal system is slick and space-age: There's a front wall lined with televisions that are connected to video cameras at various intersections around town, black control panels with an array of buttons, and a small staff working intensely.

The mission of the traffic management center and the upgrade is to remedy many of the existing system problems. But Kite warns that the new system will not be some magical transporter that can beam traffic from one location to another. "Signals aren't going to give you capacity that you don't have to begin with," he says. "There's a limit there. The only thing they do is balance the time allotted in two directions to maximize the number you can get through your system."

The new outfit will have a "smart" system, which will identify and alert engineers of internal problems. Engineers call it "system awareness." The new smart system also has the ability to self-correct after electrical storms and power failures. City engineers will no longer have to manually reset each signal.

In addition, the smart system can self-adjust to help alleviate traffic congestion. By fall of next year, the smart system should be in all 700 of the city's traffic signals. The new network will not only be better, but the city's ability to monitor the system will be vastly improved through traffic monitors in the pavement and video cameras at intersections around town. When completed, the system will have video cameras at 128 intersections in Austin, and the traffic management center will have 28 screens monitoring traffic at these intersections.

"Right now on Guadalupe, the actual timing before and after this project is not going to significantly change," Kite says. "But what will change is when there's a malfunction on Guadalupe, it won't go four days, five days, six days. We'll send a technician out there and it will be fixed within an hour or two."

The new signal system will also be timed from the traffic management center. The center will send out the time to the signals continuously, thereby synchronizing the timing of all the signals. The problem of the signal clocks all getting out of sync will be eliminated.

When all is said and done, the new system will decrease congestion within city, but will not influence I-35, MoPac, or 183 traffic, Kite says.

On the Flip Side

While the upgrade will be beneficial, it is not going to solve the congestion problem, predicts Karen Akins of the Trans Texas Alliance, a grassroots transportation research and advocacy group. "There is value in upgrading the technology that you have," she says. "It's necessary to upgrade the whole system, but if people think this is the magic bullet and it's really going to take care of our congestion problems, then they are really kidding themselves."

Improved traffic flow is only temporary, Akins believes, because it will encourage more people to drive. "You may have a one-time contemporary relief on the day that it is done, but as the flow might improve, more people are encouraged to drive, and then you end up negating any of the work that you've done."

Nor does the system eliminate waiting at intersections when no one else is there, she says. "You're sitting there at night trying to go to 7-Eleven to buy a gallon of milk and you sit there and you wait for nobody for five minutes."

There is, at least, one thing on which everyone seems to be in agreement: Light synchronization will not supersede light rail. Says Akins: "It's no replacement for providing alternate modes of transportation. One is not a substitute for the other." end story

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