Of the 288 lights in the city, 254 are newer models that communicate with the “nerve center” within the Department of Transportation.
(TNS) -- Among New England towns and cities, only Boston has a larger system of traffic lights than New Haven.
There are 288 lights in the Elm City, of varying ages and functionality. The “newest of the new,” as Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking Director Doug Hausladen puts it, have the ability to sense via optical cameras whether vehicles are at the light or not and automatically change signal timing based on that information.
“The older ones, it’s a little more rigid — here’s what you do during rush hour, here’s what you do during evenings, here’s what you do during rush hour — [that] type of thing,” Hausladen said.
At the most basic level, traffic lights exist to control the flow of traffic. Lights are programmed to take the volume of traffic into account. The lights are programmed to let a certain volume of cars through the intersections each hour, with a specific number of vehicles as its capacity. As the intersections reach and exceed capacity, they become less and less efficient.
“A lot of people get to an intersection and they have a lot of questions like: ‘I think I should have a green arrow’ or ‘Why don’t I have a turn lane here?’ or ‘That light was so short, it’s crazy. Why is that light short?’” Hausladen said.
The answer is that each intersection is programmed to keep traffic moving as efficiently as possible. Much of the fine-tuning comes from citizen complaints, especially on older signal lights that are not monitored.
“A lot of the times that people complain, it’s something that needs to be looked at and that’s great. It’s really helpful to get that feedback,” Hausladen said.
The standards that determine signal timing and engineering work like curbing and sidewalks and do not vary from city to city. Connecticut is unified under all the same rules.
David Reed, a lifelong city resident, said he thinks the overall quality of traffic in the city is “ok,” and waiting at traffic lights doesn’t bother him.
“I notice sometimes” that certain lights seem to have longer waiting times, Reed said.
He said the city is walkable, but, “Just like any city, you need to watch what you’re doing.”
Bob Moore, a truck driver from Missouri, is used to many traffic light systems and said they work “pretty much the same,” throughout the country.
“Light systems are always set up to operate for different times of the day,” he said.
“Anybody who is so selfish that their life is wrapped up in lights… back in the old days cars used to be for enjoyment. Anybody who blows through a red light is already in a rush, “ Moore said.
Benny Ruszczyk of New Haven said he doesn’t think about traffic lights when he’s driving, and he thinks ultimately lights help traffic to move easier and safer. He said there are some locations in the city that need a traffic light, but don’t have one.
Slowly, through five-year plans aimed at particular blocks and sections of New Haven, lights that can be as much as 35 to 40 years old have been replaced in recent years. Since 2003, nearly $30 million has been spent on upgrading the traffic infrastructure in New Haven. All of that money comes from state grants, though New Haven fronts the bill for traffic light maintenance.
Of the 288 lights, 254 are the newer models that communicate with the “nerve center” within the Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking offices at 200 Orange St. Thirty-plus miles of fiber-optic wiring runs through the city, allowing the traffic department to see and react to issues in real time.
Bijan Notghi spends his workdays surrounded by traffic. His office is tucked away down a hall from the front lobby of the traffic department. His desk is surrounded by 12 flat-screen televisions, each split into quadrants showing the feeds from traffic cameras across the city. This is the Traffic Operations Center, and it is manned from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. five or six days a week. There is also an on-call staff ready and waiting 24 hours a day, every day.
A total of 179 incident-management cameras record the activity at intersections across the city. These recordings are kept for 15 days, Notghi said, and can be reviewed if and when complaints are made. Because of this, the specific traffic timing can constantly be tweaked and improved to make things as efficient as possible.
There are also 200 video-detection cameras, which do not record but show traffic congestion. The city’s cameras all belong to different departments, such as the Police Department, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees, the Port Authority, the Public Works Department or the traffic department. Staffs in each department have varying levels of clearance for access. Notghi, however, can see them all.
An engineering firm also consults with the traffic department to assist with programming and timing.
“It’s a pretty massive operation when it comes down to it,” Hausladen said.
Little by little, Hausladen said, the state has been assisting New Haven in rehabbing its signal network.
“We’ve been very lucky. We’ve been very progressive [with grant money],” Notghi said.
Even with this upgraded technology and “smarter” traffic lights, there is still room for improvement, according to Kirsten Bechtel, chairwoman of Yale University’s Traffic Safety Committee.
“New Haven is a very old city. As such, the infrastructure — like streets and traffic lights — is very old. It’s hard to catch up,” she said. “The speed limit is 25 miles per hour in New Haven but it’s my perception that this is not really being adhered to.”
Pedestrians need to be made aware that they shouldn’t be distracted, she said, which is something her committee is working toward.
Among cities with more than 100,000 residents, New Haven is the nation’s eighth most walkable, according to a report by Governing Magazine covering census data from 2010 to 2012.
The Department of Environmental Health and Safety at Yale has purchased a radar sign to collect data in certain areas on campus. Traffic issues are not the fault of any one group or person, Bechtel said, but an issue of infrastructure — something which she said takes time and money and interest to fix.
“If we were designing New Haven all over again from scratch, I think we would do it much differently than they did 40-50 years ago, because our needs have changed over that time,” Bechtel said.
Ward 7 Alder Abigail Roth called running red lights a huge problem in the city that requires an uptick in enforcement.
“I know they have focused on some downtown areas but it’s a little like the Wild West,” Roth said.
Alder Frank Douglass, D-2, said he gets complaints from residents about the timing of traffic lights and would be in favor of a survey so residents could become better informed.
“Maybe we should have a survey and see what kind of data they have in place to explain to people just why the system is the way it is. People are not aware that there are different factors to take into account. There’s a lot of cars on the street and a lot of pedestrians on the street,” he said.
The bigger issue, he said, is people driving past stopped school buses.
“There needs to be a better system in place near the schools. I have four schools in my area. I notice that it is a problem with automobiles not obeying the law when it comes to school buses. Maybe some of the crosswalks should be looked into,” he said.
The Police Department’s traffic division sends officers to problem areas — such as Mauro-Sheridan School on Fountain Street — to ticket people for infractions such as passing buses or speeding.
In April, the traffic division’s staff doubled from six officers to 12. Officers, on motorcycle, patrol downtown on a daily basis, as well as certain neighborhoods or problem areas looking for red light violations.
“They want to be visible. They want enforcement to be well known,” police spokesman Officer David Hartman said.
More often than not, citizen complaints point officers in the right direction as to where to conduct red light violation and speeding stops.
“One of the frustrations that people have is, even with a dozen officers, they can’t be everywhere in the city. They do their best and we appreciate the input from the people,” Hartman said.
Motorist violations are not handled solely by the traffic division. Patrol officers, including walking beat cops, flag down cars on a daily basis, Hartman said.
©2015 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.