Drivers don’t have to see red because of bad traffic flow
Most of us have been there: sitting in traffic waiting for a red light to change as no cross traffic goes by. Then there are the times when the traffic signal finally turns green and you go straight to another red light. And then another.
Throw in a screaming kid, a broken air conditioner in the Texas heat or a late appointment, and this scenario translates into a recipe for high blood pressure, and possibly a few words that might earn a PG-13 rating (or worse).
The U.S. Department of Transportation identifies poor traffic signal timing as a major contributor to traffic delays on major roadways. Bad things happen the longer cars idle in poorly managed traffic. Productive hours are wasted. Waiting vehicles burn more gasoline, increasing harmful emissions. Drivers attempting to avoid poorly timed traffic lights might cut through residential neighborhoods, creating a safety hazard. Motorist frustration increases, driving some to road rage.
Poorly timed traffic signals can ruin a public road’s purpose. Fixing these signals helps move traffic.
Some Texas cities already have taken the lead in improving traffic signal operations with measured results. In 2007, Austin traffic engineers implemented changes to their traffic signal management that resulted in a 9.8 percent overall reduction in travel time for major arterials, reducing traffic delays by 2.3 million hours. These changes contributed to a 3.5 percent reduction in fuel consumption, saving nearly 1.3 million gallons of gas and millions in motorists’ dollars.
In Plano, installation of a new traffic signal system coupled with improved system management amounted to a fuel savings of 848,000 gallons, 745,000 fewer hours of traffic delay and an operating cost reduction of nearly $13.3 million.
Broader studies corroborate Austin’s and Plano’s experiences: Better traffic signal management can result in a 10 to 15 percent improvement in mobility and reduce fuel consumption by nearly 10 percent. More advanced improvements can decrease travel time by as much as 25 percent.
Traffic signal improvements do not come cheap. Installing state-of-the-art signals at a standard, four-way intersection costs between $90,000 to $160,000. Beyond financial resources, our state and local transportation agencies need more personnel with experience in the art and science of traffic signal operation.
The benefits of better traffic signal operations outweigh costs, however. One program administered in Texas in the mid-1990s found a 32-to-1 benefit-to-cost ratio, where every dollar spent to improve traffic lights saved motorists $32 in time and fuel. Despite this success, the program was discontinued for lack of funding.
Clearly, better management of our traffic lights improves mobility and reduces congestion while allowing for better use of existing roads. Unfortunately, the tenor of today’s transportation policy debate centers on the need to build — and pay for — more roads to meet Texas’ future transportation needs. Certainly, absent an unforeseen revolution in everyday commuting, we will need more roads.
Building roads is expensive, however. The Texas Department of Transportation estimates that converting an urban non-freeway to a freeway costs $8.5 million per lane mile, while widening an existing urban freeway costs between $7.9 million to $11 million per mile. Expanding a rural roadway from two to four lanes costs $1.2 million per mile. Multiply these figures against hundreds of miles of needed roads, and the final price tag is staggering.
Expanding our policy focus to include improving traffic light signalization and management — as the House Transportation Committee has done under the leadership of Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso — shifts the discussion from paying for more roads to making more efficient those that taxpayers already paid for. Solutions do exist: installing smart light systems or expanding the corps of specialists with the expertise and know-how to best manage traffic signal system. Other solutions might be more low-tech, such as using blinking yellow lights on some streets during off-peak periods or using signage to allow traffic to move more freely.
Better traffic signal management will not be a panacea. Rather, it is a solution that improves mobility while saving motorists’ time and reducing fuel consumption and emissions. All of this comes cheaper than building roadway.