Traffic lights make many see red

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

August 03, 1992

Traffic lights have Ronald Alper seeing red.

The Ednor Gardens resident frequently drives to Washington to visit his sister or meet friends. When he does, he inevitably gets stuck at city traffic signals.

"The lights that are supposed to be in sequence seem to get out of sequence, especially on Martin Luther King Boulevard," says Mr. Alper, an attorney with the Maryland Public Service Commission.

"It would be a good way to get from the center of the city to Interstate 95 if not for the red lights."

Alas, how often has that happened to each of us? On some major thoroughfare -- Maryland Avenue, Calvert Street or St. Paul Street -- a light turns red at a cross street that doesn't handle nearly as much traffic.

It is enough to make one curse a blue streak.

"What happened to [Baltimore's] great sequential traffic light system?" another reader writes.

Intrepid Commuter, ever anxious to be on the cutting edge of major developments in the highfalutin' field of urban traffic management, has done some thorough research, going to great lengths and sparing no expense in our search for the truth.

That effort principally involved walking from the Sun building across the street to the city's traffic command and control center.

It was over 90 degrees outside. Humid, too.

A brief history

To fully understand the city's approach to traffic, let us review some pertinent facts.

First, one should go forward on green, slow on amber and stop on red. (This would seem elementary, but Baltimore drivers are notorious red-light runners.)

Traffic signals work in cycles of 50 seconds to 140 seconds duration. A typical Baltimore traffic light runs its cycle in 90 seconds.

The cycle is divided into phases. Traffic flowing in one direction frequently gets a bigger chunk of the time than the others. The priority often goes to the busiest street.

Now, here's where it gets tricky. About 900 of Baltimore's 1,300 signalized intersections are tied into the city's $18 million central computer facility, which can automatically change the lights' timing.

Ideally, lights along a major thoroughfare are progressive. As one drives south on St. Paul Street during the morning rush hour, for instance, one should hit a rolling cycle of green lights that allows the traffic to move right along.

But here's the catch: When major thoroughfares intersect -- say Martin Luther King Boulevard and Fayette Street -- the odds are close to even that a driver will get caught at a red signal.

The juggling act

Frederick Marc, an assistant commissioner in the city's transportation department, tells us that in Mr. Alper's case, he is going against the flow of morning traffic and is likely to be stopped, not only at Fayette, but possibly at Pratt or Lombard streets as well.

Had the city given preference to southbound traffic on Martin Luther King Jr., it would have shortchanged a far-heavier stream of other motorists, backing up traffic in the central business district.

"The timings are based on traffic counts and observations," Mr. Marc says. "It's always a juggling act."

The decisions are further complicated by the presence of a new downtown stadium, and the potential for emergency situations: storms that knock out power, fires, floods or other disasters that require traffic to be rerouted.

All of that can be handled by the traffic command and control system, which is staffed 24 hours a day. Within a matter of seconds, the timing of any signal can be changed by a few strokes on a keyboard.

Naturally, the presence of sophisticated technology doesn't mean mistakes aren't made. The traffic experts are constantly tinkering with the programs. Traffic patterns are almost constantly changing as people's driving habits change.

"We've been making a lot of changes because of the stadium and light rail," Mr. Marc says. "People are seeing some things they aren't used to seeing."

If you encounter a signal timing that doesn't seem quite right, Mr. Marc invites you to write him at the Baltimore Department of Transportation, 417 E. Fayette St., Room 625, Baltimore, Md. 21202.

As for the lawyer in Ednor Gardens, Mr. Marc recommends he take 33rd Street to St. Paul to Conway Street to Interstate 395. He may still confront red lights, but it's likely to be faster than taking Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Looking for Do-Gooders

Intrepid Commuter reminds our readers that the search continues for the Baltimore area's Good Samaritans of the Road. We seek all heart-tugging stories of daring road rescues or thankless aid given to one or more helpless commuters.

We'll be putting together the best of the bunch in the near future.

Keep in touch

Write to the Intrepid Commuter, c/o The Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278. Please include your name and telephone number so we can reach you if we have any questions.

Or use your Touch-Tone phone to call Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at 783-1800, and enter Ext. 4305. Call 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County.

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