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Behind the Bay Area’s Plan to Make Traffic Lights Smarter

More than a dozen cities and agencies across the San Francisco Bay Area have embarked on a potentially far-reaching plan for adaptive traffic signal operations.

(TNS) — Traffic lights, damn ’em. Red way too long, don’t seem synchronized and too often lead to frustrated drivers jamming their way into an intersection on red, thereby blocking traffic across all lanes.

Relief is in the works. More than a dozen cities and agencies across the Bay Area have embarked on a potentially far-reaching plan for smarter lights that has some traffic planners almost giddy over improving one of the top gripes drivers rail about.

The Innovative Deployments to Enhance Arterials (or IDEA), in which federal grants are distributed to public agencies through the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, will collect data and monitor traffic signal status of each vehicle on its arrival. It will record the data and prepare them for analysis if the signal timing is in need of improvements.

The adaptive traffic signal operation would adjust the signal timing of red, yellow and green lights to accommodate changing road conditions and continuously distribute green light for optimum traffic signal options and improve travel time and reduce congestion.

“This is definitely a game changer,” said Matt Morley, the public works director in Los Gatos, which will get $700,000 in federal grants to modernize signals throughout town. “This will replace the guts of our control systems, which are antiquated, with modern control systems.”

Traffic lights are a major complaint of drivers, and not just during commute times but at all times of day or night. The National Highway Institute has given a grade of D-plus or worse to how poorly signals function in urban areas nationwide.

This is more than just adding extra green time. That’s so old school. The new focus is to pinpoint problems almost immediately with a sharp eye on the future when automated vehicles hit the road in great numbers.

“Instead of reacting to customers’ complaints, this will allow staff to proactively identify signal inefficiencies and take corrective actions,” said John Ristow, San Jose’s acting director of transportation, of the nearly $1.9 million the city will get to upgrade 100 intersections on eight busy streets.

AC Transit will use $2.3 million for Dumbarton Express service improvements. Walnut Creek will install a next-generation transit signal priority system on five streets and Hayward will use the new system at 34 intersections. The Valley Transportation Authority will get $830,000 for an accessible automated vehicle test at the Palo Alto VA Medical Center. Oakland, Emeryville, Pleasanton, Dublin, Union City, San Rafael, San Ramon and South San Francisco are all jumping on board.

The program set aside $13 million in September. Millions more will be needed, but early results show that over 1,600 of the 110,000 signals around the Bay Area have been retimed in recent years, reducing travel times by 15 percent, saving more than 3.9 million hours in travel, an 11 percent savings of fuel or 11.5 million gallons, and has reduced emissions by 422.4 tons.

The process now in most cities is to retime lights every three to five years. About 15 percent of San Jose’s 951 signals have faulty detection on any given day.

“We have an aging and unreliable infrastructure that causes travel delays,” Ristow said. “Most agencies don’t have resources to tackle these. We certainly don’t.”

The new system could detect which buses in Walnut Creek are packed with riders, and give them a series of green lights. Or detect pedestrians intruding onto Caltrain tracks, alerting drivers of a pedestrian at midblock. Or avoid puzzling intersections like the “eBay light” at Hamilton Avenue and Graylands Drive in San Jose.

“It is one as the most irritating of Santa Clara County’s traffic lights,” said Sean Everton, who daily sees a handful of shoppers who have discovered that it’s often quicker to exit the parking lot on Hamilton and make a U-turn at Graylands instead of waiting behind a red light to return to Hamilton.

But more needs to be done. Millions more in federal aid is needed to keep on top of advancing software.

“There is a lot of work to be done to consider this a success,” said Walnut Creek Assistant Public Works Director Steve Waymire. “The primary challenge is having technology developed by different companies talking to each other in an efficient and safe manner. As with all of the intelligent vehicle systems, security of the system from hackers is also a concern.

“But we are excited to advance this technology; and hopefully, it will be one of many technologies that will change the way we view our transportation system.”

The IDEA grant program has earmarked $13 million to cities, counties and transit agencies regionwide for advanced traffic signals, transit priority and automated vehicle and other connected-vehicle technologies:

  • $276,000 to Alameda
  • $2.3 million for Dumbarton Express buses
  • $560,000 to Contra Costa Transportation Authority
  • $385,000 to Dublin
  • $785,000 Emeryville
  • $302,000 to Hayward
  • $700,000 to Los Gatos
  • $310,000 to Oakland
  • $290,000 to Pleasanton
  • $1.9 million to San Jose
  • $830,000 to San Rafael
  • $563,000 to San Ramon
  • $532,000 to South San Francisco
  • $710,000 Union City
  • $830,000 to VTA (accessible automated vehicle pilot at Palo Alto VA Medical Center)
  • $675,050 to Walnut Creek
  • $1,060,000 for technical assistance to various municipalities
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Commission

©2018 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).  Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.