Earlier this month, an article in the New York Times showcased Los Angeles for being the first major city in the world to synchronize every one of its 4,500 traffic signals. But closer to home, a similar project is already underway in Fresno, which could make commutes on Shaw Avenue quicker by the end of April. Valley Public Radio’s Ezra Romero reports.
We’ve all been there. Stuck in traffic at red light after red light. And when the line of cars finally begins to move – yes, you’ve guessed it – another traffic signal. But for drivers on Fresno’s notoriously busy Shaw Avenue, a new high-tech traffic synchronization project might soon make that commute a little more bearable.
It’s part of a city wide project that Patrick Wiemiller, Fresno’s public works director, calls an “intelligent transportation system.”
“Rather than operating traffic controls through mechanized traffic operations we do it through computerization and live real time communication between monitoring points so that we can have software along a given corridor traffic that’s communicating with other locations and able to track what’s going on with traffic.”
Over the last year, crews have been working to install the synchronization equipment along an eight and a half mile stretch of Shaw Avenue from Highway 99 to Highway 168. The city expects the project to be complete by the end of April.
But Shaw Avenue isn’t the first major street in Fresno to get the synchronization treatment. Over the last six years Herndon, Blackstone and Clovis avenues have all been upgraded.
“Currently we have about all together close to 100 intersection light signals that are controlled or influenced by intelligent transportation and traffic synchronization. We hope to get that number close to 500 by the time we’re done and we just have a little over 500 traffic signals in Fresno,” says Wiemiller.
But what exactly is traffic synchronization?
“Synchronization is really an old idea. And that is that you have a progression of signals and they are coordinated as traffic moves from signal to signal it turns green at the time that traffic arrives,” says Randolph Hall, a professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Southern California and the editor of the Handbook of Transportation Science.
He says the latest generation of synchronization takes advantage of new technology to optimize traffic flow and keep cars moving. In the case of Fresno’s system, sensors are implanted in city streets. The sensors gather real time information and send it through an underground fiber optic cable network to the city’s central traffic operation system, where traffic flow can then be regulated.
“In doing that we can then coordinate traffic signals in a way that moves cars in platoons, in groups. Moves them along and is able to reduce or eliminate their stops at red lights at the posted speed limits and are able to avoid or minimize the time they would otherwise be stopped at an intersection and idling,” says Wiemiller.
But the effort isn’t just about making it quicker to get from one side of town to the other. It’s also about improving air quality.
“The main point of the system is to improve our air quality and reduce those emissions. We have the added benefit that it decreases commute times and it increased the quality of life and the enjoyment of traveling by vehicle across our city,” says Wiemiller.
The existing traffic light synchronization projects including the Shaw Avenue project have been funded through $25 million of air quality grants from the federal government. The Shaw Avenue Project cost $3.5 million.
But even with all the new technology behind the new computerized traffic system, both Wiemiller and Hall both agree that the success of Fresno’s system largely rests with motorists themselves.
Hall says that those who like to speed won’t likely see any benefits.
"So if you are driving slower or faster than the assumed progression then you may hit red lights. So if the first person at the intersection is a speeder when they get to the next signal they are likely to see a red light when they arrive there. If they are going at the assumed speed they’ll get a green light,” says Hall.
According to the city, traffic light synchronization on Herndon Avenue has decreased the average commute time by five minutes. And because cars idle less at traffic signals, the potential for improved air quality in the region is high, Wiemiller says.
“Our experience in the past has been a 23 percent reduction in commute times. So depending on how far they are traveling we expect them to improve that by 20 percent or so,” Wiemiller.
Wiemiller is looking forward to the synchronization of Shaw Avenue. He says he’s excited to see the reports from the city’s central traffic operation system after the Shaw Project is completed so tweaks can be made to the route.
“We have real time information about traffic flow, traffic counts – all of that is being captured in a real time basis,” says Wiemiller. “We work very purposefully to keep traffic flowing as smoothly as possible.”
After the Shaw Avenue project is complete, the city hopes to connect areas of the city that aren’t on the fiber optic network via wireless connectors to improve traffic flow throughout the rest of Fresno.