Synchronizing city's traffic lights isn't rocket science

With all that can go wrong, it might be harder

June 07, 2010

Among all the many gripes heard from drivers traveling through Baltimore, one of the most heartfelt is that the traffic lights don't seem to be synchronized.

It's a complaint that comes from readers. It's a complaint I hear at home. And certainly there are times, when stuck behind a red light that seems to last forever, when I've wondered: Who's in charge here?

It turns out the city traffic light honcho is 54-year-old Randall Scott, and he does seem to have a firm grasp of what's happening on the streets of Baltimore.

A 35-year traffic engineer and a veteran of the State Highway Administration, Scott is the chief of the traffic division of the Baltimore Department of Transportation. That means he manages the folks — all three of them — who program the city's 1,300 traffic lights. Another 13 maintain the signals, some of which are 30 to 40 years old.

Scott says Baltimore is not among the worst cities in synchronizing lights.

"We want to get to be one of the best," he said, while conceding that the city is now "somewhere in the middle." He's hoping to enhance the system soon with an infusion of federal stimulus money that will improve some 150 signals.

My interest in the topic was piqued by an e-mail from Jim Cumbie of Baltimore, who expressed frustration over what he sees as a lack of synchronicity in the city traffic lights he encounters.

"Our most precious material resource is energy, and our most precious nonmaterial resource is time; nobody wants to waste either one idling at a traffic light," Cumbie wrote.

He's right, of course, but the flip side is that the drivers in the crossing street are just as jealous of their time and energy.

"With these competing interests, we are limited in providing green lights to everybody all the time," Scott said. "The challenge is traffic patterns aren't static, they're dynamic."

Scott acknowledges that some lights are out of sync, with people waiting far too long after traffic has cleared in the intersecting street. He said that with a limited staff, which is not likely to grow any time soon, his department depends on motorists to be his operation's eyes and ears.

Cumbie filled that role with respect to three intersections:

•-Northern Parkway and Roland Avenue, where Cumbie said it sometimes takes three cycles for eastbound traffic on Northern to clear the intersection.

•Saratoga and Gay streets, which Cumbie found to be clogged every afternoon. Seeing it as a rather uncomplicated intersection, he wondered "why there should be anything other than perfect timing."

•Eastbound Northern Parkway at the ramp to the Jones Falls Expressway, where Cumbie found the timing to be off.

Scott, who was provided the questions before my interview, arrived with answers that were instructive on broader points.

At Northern and Roland, Scott said, Cumbie had spotted a real problem. It turns out that a malfunctioning traffic detector needs to be replaced — a task that might take a month. Scott said the electronic devices die from time to time — often as a result of weather-related deterioration of the wiring. He said the city welcomes 311 calls to report such problems.

At Saratoga Street, he said, the problem is that the intersection is more complicated than it appears to an untrained eye. The issues there, he said, are a parking garage on Lexington Street that lets out during the afternoon rush, as well as the need to accommodate pedestrian traffic. He said the city has recently taken steps to give pedestrians extra time to cross some streets — such as Martin Luther King Boulevard — so they can make it all the way across instead of having to wait in the median.

At Northern and the JFX, Scott said, there wasn't enough information on the timing of the problem to make a diagnosis. He said that when a citizen calls 311 about a problem, his staff needs to know the time of day and direction as well as the specific place to dispatch an observer.

Scott said the city's computerized traffic light programming system can be fine-tuned for the time of day and adjusted to accommodate special events that generate traffic. For instance, he said, the lights around Camden Yards will be programmed differently when the Orioles are playing the big-drawing Yankees than when a less popular team is in town.

But even the best programming, he said, can be defeated by traffic volume. He noted that the Beltway routinely backs up when congested even though it doesn't have a single traffic light. Other things that can throw off signal timing, he said, are construction, severe weather, crashes and other urban misfortunes. A water main break on one side of downtown, he said, will affect traffic throughout central Baltimore.

But under normal circumstances, he said, drivers on a main artery should be able to clear an intersection in a single cycle. If it routinely takes two or more cycles to clear an intersection, or if a driver regularly hits several red lights in a row on the same stretch of city street, it could be time to call 311, he said. The more specific the information, the better.

Of course, if drivers going north and south on a particular street are getting too much time at red lights, the folks going east and west must be getting more than their share of green. According to Scott, the latter aren't heard from.

"I've never got that complaint," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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