Ann Arbor’s adaptive traffic signal control system has been playing god for more than a decade, but fiddling engineers continue to tweak its inputs and algorithms. Now it reduces weekday travel times on affected corridors by 12 percent, and weekend travel time by 21 percent. A trip along one busy corridor that took under three minutes just 15 percent of the time in 2005 now comes in under that mark 70 percent of the time. That’s enough to convince Ann Arbor’s traffic engineers, who just announced they’ll extend this system to all its downtown traffic lights and its most trafficked corridors.
To combat congestion, each hopped-up signal uses pavement-embedded sensors or cameras to spot cars waiting at red lights. The signals send that information via fiber network to the Big Computer back at traffic management base, which compiles the data.
This stuff works on a macro and micro level: If there are four cars lined up to go one way through an intersection, and zero cars lined up to move perpendicular to them, the light might turn green for the four. But a network of connected lights—like in Ann Arbor—will analyze the entire grid, and figure out who to prioritize to get the most people to their destinations the fastest. Advanced traffic control systems can even predict delays and congestion build-up before they happen, based on the ebb and flow of commutes…
The system knows when to lay off the change. “People kind of freak out if the signal is really different from yesterday or different from what it was five years ago,” says Richard Wallace, who directs the Center for Automotive Research’s transportation systems analysis group. For the most part, the system looks to tweak light patterns, not reshape the whole shebang from one hour to the next.
As we wait for the complete takeover by driverless cars, this could help ease our troubles. Small but consistent improvements like this could make a big difference to many commuters. Of course, it could also have the effect of encouraging more drivers who see that the commute is not so bad. Perhaps this is why the lights should be somewhat haphazard; it might unnerve a few of those drivers.
I assume there are some costs associated with putting in sensors and cameras as well as in developing the software and having employees to set up and run the system. How do these costs compare to the money saved in shorter driving trips? Or, what if this money had been put into opportunities like mass transit that would remove drivers from the roads?