Greater Greater Washington

Don't expect green lights all the time

You're driving along in downtown DC. You get a green light and start moving, but just as you get to the next corner the light turns red. It's frustrating! But it's no conspiracy. There could be reasons this happens, even besides trying to help pedestrians and cyclists.


Photo by apium on Flickr.

Adam Tuss's latest NBC TV news segment brings the shocking revelation that drivers don't like to stop at red lights, and that at least one person thinks it's another part of the war... I mean, the nonexistent general pattern of DC deliberately pursuing policies that make things worse for drivers.

Tuss read an email on the Tenleytown listserv, by semi-anonymous poster "Paul," alleging that DC deliberately times lights to slow down drivers. Tuss makes this the core of his story, with a response from DC transportation officials who say that this is not true, though actually, they'd really like to install a more modern signal system that makes it easier to time lights.

In the TV news tradition, Tuss also interviews a few "people on the street," and does make sure to talk to people with multiple points of view. One driver thinks DC can probably figure out a better system, though he doesn't say anything inflammatory. Another says it's important to design signals to accommodate pedestrians, adding, "cities are for people, not for cars."

At the end, Tuss and his crew take a drive on Wisconsin Avenue. We can see them leaving one intersection with a green light and getting to another one. He concludes, "Clearly, from the driver's standpoint, some signals were not timed properly."

Actually, no, and this is the most dangerous part of this report because it reinforces the notion that if you hit a red light, there is something wrong with the timing.

Quite simply, lights are not going to be green for everyone all the time. Wisconsin Avenue, for instance, is a 2-way street. Any timing that gives successive green lights to people driving one direction will mean more red lights the other way.

Parts of 16th Street do have "platooning," where lights turn green in succession. This also encourages people to drive the speed limit, since if they go faster, they'll just hit red lights each time. Some people surely think 16th's lights are terrible because they keep hitting red lights. Others, driving the opposite way, have a legitimate beef that they timing makes things worse for them.

Downtown, there are many main streets intersecting at various angles in close proximity. There's no way to time all of the streets for continuous greens in every direction. Should the timing encourage people to drive north on 16th or west on streets like R and U in the evening? Both have a lot of commuters traveling in conflicting directions.

One way to combat that particular problem is to close segments of streets to car traffic. When New York closed the diagonal Broadway around Times and Herald Squares, it found that traffic flowed better because the diagonal confounded signal timings on the avenues. DC could probably help everyone better traverse a place like Dupont Circle if it reduced the number of roads coming in, but that would surely spark even more "war on cars" claims even if it actually helps cars and the people inside as well as pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders.

There are many other reasons traffic engineers might time lights in a way that appears wrong to a driver traveling a particular direction. Contributor and engineer Andrew Bossi offered many examples, such as:

Gap Provision: Providing breaks in traffic, such as to allow nearby uncontrolled interactions to operate adequately. Without these breaks, some uncontrolled intersections may never be able to clear out, subsequently requiring some treatments such as an additional traffic signalwhich would only increase motorists' delays. Breaks in traffic improve net mobility for the greatest amount of road users.
Still, many signals in DC aren't timed with a lot of forethought. DC doesn't have a state-of-the-art system to control all of the lights centrally. Many individual decisions get made based on local neighborhood pressure, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT)'s James Cheeks has told me and others. That can have its pros and cons; sometimes neighbors know well where the trouble spots are, but it also makes the overall system haphazard.

Many signal timings could be better. If DDOT changes them, however, it won't necessarily ensure that Adam Tuss always gets a green. What helps move on group of drivers could slow down another group. Also, as people say in Tuss's story, drivers aren't the only people on the roads.

In some places, DC could time signals to help buses get past a trouble spot when they cross a busy road. That might mean drivers on that main road more often get a red, but if the bus caries 20 people and 5 drivers have to wait a little longer, it's a net gain. Pedestrians need time to cross, especially wide roads like Wisconsin in places with a lot of seniors like upper Northwest.

Any fixes to signals have to take everyone's needs into account. That'll surely make someone frustrated, creating good fodder for another Adam Tuss transportation story.

Update: Doug Noble, DDOT's Chief Traffic Engineer from 2004-2007, notes in a comment:

DDOT's system is not state-of-the-art, but is at least state of the practice from the late-90's which is better than some major cities. Most traffic signals in DC are in communication with the central system software ... The issue with the signal systems in DC is that there is typically insufficient in-house resources to update signal timing on a recurrent regular basis and it has been done through an outside contract city-wide every 4-6 years. ...

That issue is not unique to DDOT, rather it is a problem nationwide, there is money available for capital projects, but less resources available to operate and maintain the existing signals system (or even the new stuff once installed).

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Given the news cycle, Tuss clearly produced that piece at or near the evening rush-hour. As he closed his segment driving southbound/inbound on Wisconsin Avenue, the illustration made his point. However, David aptly noted that the outbound traffic would have a much easier time, as the light are programmed to facilitate smoother flow in that direction.

by Andrew on May 8, 2013 11:03 am • linkreport

wide roads like Wisconsin in places with a lot of seniors like upper Northwest

I'm not sure how good this policy recommendation is. Soon the "war on cars" crowd will be demanding shorter walk signals on H Street NE because all the hipsters are young enough to run across the street.

Seriously, ADA requires all walk signals to be timed for slow-moving people.

by Ben Ross on May 8, 2013 11:04 am • linkreport

I have generally found that other places NOT in DC manage to handle synchronized traffic lights better, or at the very least fixed the "go one block, hit a red light, go to the next block, hit a red light" problem. It's not simply that driving in downtown DC is unpleasant-- my expectations are rather low, there, which is why I don't drive downtown if I can avoid it -- but that the entire metro area is a relatively unpleasant experience of stop-and-go traffic combined with congestion that is poorly managed in part because of the poorly-managed light system.

by JustMe on May 8, 2013 11:04 am • linkreport

One issue this article and the segment from Adam Tuss/Channel 4 seems to miss is how poorly timed traffic signals can delay bus service. Take a ride on Metrobus G2 through Logan Circle. You will wait and wait (and wait and wait some more) for the traffic signals to "clear" the through P Street movement.

I understand that no movement can or should have constant "green flow" with the street pattern we have in the District (and the non-grid in Nova and MD) but I understand the frustration when I am on a bus in Logan Circle waiting to turn right to continue on P St with no traffic and no pedestrians and no turns on red allowed.

by Transport. on May 8, 2013 11:05 am • linkreport

To copy/paste my full comments from discussion elsewhere:

Signals are only "mistimed" due to insufficient resources, outright error, or when deviating inappropriately beyond engineering judgement & practice. They are NOT mistimed when intentionally done for reasons listed below (which surely doesn't include everything). I write these intentionally from a windshield perspective focused mostly on the motorists' mobility & safety:

- Green Progression / Platooning
Intentionally grouping traffic together to better manage the traffic flows, enabling signal operators to move groups of motorists through the system more optimally than if they were attempting to address traffic at constant streams from all directions.

Platooning means that a motorist may be more likely to receive a red when first turning onto a corridor, but will benefit from continued green progression once in pace. This can involve encouraging a target speed by establishing progression of greens so that if you drive at XX MPH, you'll get all-greens... but go to fast (or potentially also too slow) and you'll fall out of the platoon & get a red.

This can improve motorists' mobility / reduce delays by moving a flow at an optimal speed in well-defined platoons which can be properly designed for, while simultaneously improving safety by managing speeds in a manner consistent with engineered intentions. Platooning allows major intersections to be better capable of serving each crossing flow.

- Speed Mitigation
Reducing maximum attainable speeds through use of reds. This can be a safety mechanism in situations where a reduction in mobility & potential increase in rear-end collisions is justified at the reduction of potential angle collisions (typically more severe) at uncontrolled intersections as well as pedestrian, bicycle, and fixed object collisions along a corridor. [note that I specifically do not refer to this as "traffic calming", as this can aggravate motorists & cause them to act more aggressively; hence why it's not generally suggested practice]

- Gap Provision
Providing breaks in traffic, such as to allow nearby uncontrolled interactions to operate adequately. Without these breaks, some uncontrolled intersections may never be able to clear out, subsequently requiring some treatments such as an additional traffic signal -- which would only increase motorists' delays. Breaks in traffic improve net mobility for the greatest amount of road users.

- Reverse Flow
Reverse flow operations, which may experience more reds than the peak flow direction. This improves mobility / reduces delays for the maximum amount of motorists.

- Alternative Mode Coordination
Alternate mode timing patterns, whereby signals are coordinated to maximize bicycle flow or pedestrian flow. While I do not believe we have any such corridors active in DC, these do exists in other parts of the world.

- Signal Priority
Whereby vehicles may be able to extend a green phase -- therefore causing conflicting approaches to experience a lengthened red phase. Some bus systems use this in order to improve bus mobility / reduce bus delays, serving a net benefit to motorists by moving the maximum number of users rather than vehicles. If not for this: many of those bus passengers would instead be adding to traffic with even more cars. This can have some effect on coordinated systems by temporarily kicking them out of sync, but the issue tends to resolve within 1-2 cycles.

- Signal Preemption
Whereby vehicles may shorten a red phase and prematurely convert it to green. This is typical among emergency response vehicles and heavy rail, but occasionally used on some transit systems such as buses and light rail. This will prompt conflicting approaches to go to red. As with signal priority, in cases of bus/rail this can have a benefit of moving users rather than vehicles. It also provides safety benefits: heavy rail may not be able to stop in response to traffic, hence why we have rail gates that come down across at-grade crossings; and as a society we deem emergency responders to have justified priority -- preemption enabling them to move more quickly and at reduced risk to traffic.

- Pedestrian clearance
Whereby the time needed for pedestrians to cross may be greater than otherwise needed to clear side-street vehicles. Common in more suburban areas, where there may be less side-street traffic and wider roads to cross: to a mainline motorist it can appear that the red is held excessively long, even remaining red after the pedestrian has finished crossing. This is due to ADA guidelines requiring crossing times be set to a specific crossing speed... while most pedestrians can cross well within this time, signal operators are legally obligated to provide adequate crossing time complying with ADA standards.

by Bossi on May 8, 2013 11:06 am • linkreport

I'm of the firm belief that a lot of the road rage we see is because of ill-timed lights. Sure, you can't expect EVERY light to be green, but hitting every single red light on a given stretch of street is likely to blow anyone's top off, not to mention be extremely inefficient and affect not just drivers but also buses and hyper-local air quality.

I'm also of the firm belief that if you want drivers to drive a certain speed, you adjust the signal timing to match that speed. The DC area has an appalling lack of it. There are plenty of road segments that it could be implemented on where there isn't the "mad rush of traffic going all over the place" that David alludes to in some of his article examples.

The lack of a centralized signal system is also sad, but not entirely surprising. If DDOT were to install one and refocus signal timing policy, it would be a big help. Wouldn't solve the red light issue, but would certainly be more efficient and help out ALL modes.

by Froggie on May 8, 2013 11:09 am • linkreport

What I love about the segment is the example at the end. I don't think it proves his point at all. All the traffic goes from one light to the next (no clue how fast they're going since the video is sped up). And right after they get there, the light turns green so they can continue! What is the problem? If they slowed down slightly they wouldn't have to stop.

Also the person they are following in that time-lapse is driving like a f-ing moron, swerving all over the place, and alternately smashing the gas and the brake pedal.

Seriously, ADA requires all walk signals to be timed for slow-moving people.

I could make a list of 8-10 intersections for DDOT to review where I, an able-bodied 20-something who walks pretty fast, can barely get across the street before the pedestrian signal goes to steady red.

by MLD on May 8, 2013 11:11 am • linkreport

@bossi, good points.

That being said, isn't it true that most of DC's light system isn't timed very well and is/broken? God only knows how much we've spent in the last 10 years on this.

And I think the bus priority was supposed to do something on this but ended up nowhere.

I sent in a link a while ago on the LA system, I'll see if I can find it.

Another question is why the boxes for light control are so big. Often they use up huge areas of sidewalk. And given the whirinig noises they sound mechanical.

by charlie on May 8, 2013 11:12 am • linkreport

"I could make a list of 8-10 intersections for DDOT to review where I, an able-bodied 20-something who walks pretty fast, can barely get across the street before the pedestrian signal goes to steady red."

For instance, crossing K at 16th NW. You get 13 seconds to cross 6 lanes and two medians. That is typical on large intersections where cars get a turn signal that takes up half of the cycle.

by engrish_major on May 8, 2013 11:15 am • linkreport

Good comments here. I 100% agree with Froggie. One criticism of the article. It states "Any timing that gives successive green lights to people driving one direction will mean more red lights the other way."

This simply isn't generally true. For instance, it fails if lights are equally spaced, and the speed limits the same. Of course, it's hard to have both ways work perfectly, but one can usually get close on at least a couple of successive green lights. And if you had speed limits that varied between lights differently in each direction, you could synchronize greens in both directions for as long as you'd like. For when we have self-driving cars ...

by John on May 8, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport

>I have generally found that other places NOT in DC manage to handle synchronized traffic lights better

Possibly, but do any of them have huge grids with a lot of diagonal streets criss-crossing in every direction? It's easy to time the lights on a suburban arterial highway that only intersects smaller local streets. Quite another thing to do it on a grid, and even harder to do it on a grid where the largest streets are diagonals.

by BeyondDC on May 8, 2013 11:17 am • linkreport

@engrish_major

I work right by there and it is exactly one of the intersections I was thinking of.

Also, try crossing eastbound on the south sidewalk of W St through the "death star" intersection (15th/W/Florida), I think you also get about 13 seconds which is enough to barely make it to the tiny and terrifying "pedestrian refuge" in the middle of traffic. I doubt an person with mobility issues could even make it there.

There are also places where the lights are terribly timed for bikes; the cycletrack has an issue on 15th if you are going northbound from M, you basically have to stop at Mass Ave, RI Ave, and P St unless you are really speedy. It leads to a lot of cyclists going against the light.

Don't even get me started on the traffic circles in this city, the lights on those seem to be programmed to be as terrible as possible for everyone.

by MLD on May 8, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

This is one of the reasons I avoid driving in DC. However, DC's not the only place with this problem -- NoVA's (and Virginia in general) traffic lights behave like this, too. Driving up Route 1 through Crystal City the other day, I hit every single red light. This caused everyone (myself included) to floor it as soon as it turned green. There aren't a ton of people trying to cross Route 1 but on other roads with similar traffic light issues, it can be a real safety issue to pedestrians.

by Matt on May 8, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

I certainly find the state highways in the MD suburbs at least, have descent traffic light control. I find it appropriate and tolerable to hit every 3rd or 4th light on red, depending on spacing, and can usually make it up Georgia Avenue from the Beltway to Wheaton with just 1 Red, and can usually make it up Rockville Pike from the Beltway to Montrose with 1 or 2 reds.

When I lived near Baltimore, I had a reverse commute and it certainly sucked, but I understood I was going the wrong way, and could see the platooning effect for city-bound traffic very clear on the other side of the road. Even then, I didn't hit every light, I got stopped at the same 4 'larger' intersections and made it through a number of smaller cross street signals with a green.

My larger problem with driving in MD is on the Montgomery County roads. Spring Street for example, makes zero sense to me. Going from 16th street around to Colesville Rd, I often hit every light on red, and usually it has just turned red. Something could be said for traffic calming but as someone else pointed out, I tend to drive more irrationally if i've been stuck in traffic, or in an area of frequent red lights.

I also have noticed a lot of signals in Silver Spring that don't seem to change their cycling behavior for the time of day. Often I see in the suburbs very different signal behavior depending on the time of day and day of week, but in downtown Silver Spring, the signals seem to be set like clockwork to the same schedule, regardless of the time of day or day of week. Very frustrating on a Saturday or Sunday morning when there is little traffic. I understand a signal like Georgia at Spring is probably designed in some ways to limit the number of cars that can enter Silver Spring at any given time, to keep the lights in the downtown area from failing, but there is an obvious directional flow of traffic along Spring, with more westbound traffic in the morning and more eastbound traffic in the afternoon. Why not keep the same 40 seconds of red for Georgia Avenue traffic but instead of splitting the Spring Street Greens at 20 and 20, how about 10 and 30, giving the 30 to the side of peak flow? And why is the pedestrian signal set to only let you walk when the westbound side has their green? It's a full movement intersection, there is no special pedestrian protection from this movement.

by Gull on May 8, 2013 11:34 am • linkreport

poorly timed walk signals aren't limited to just DC. The light to cross Georgia Ave and Wayne Ave (ex: you're walking along Wayne Ave towards the metro station) is ridiculously short. Maybe 2 seconds of a white "WALK" signal, promptly followed by the flashing red hand, and good luck hustling across all those lanes and the median before the solid "DON'T WALK"

My personal "most hated interesction as a pedestrian" is M St. And S. Capitol, by the ballpark. Walking along the south side of M Street from SE to SW, you cross two lanes of traffic and end up on a very large median. And then you have to wait a ridiculously long time for the walk signal to cross the next two lanes because cars turning from M to S. Capitol are given priority! There's actually a DON'T WALK signal for east-weat pedestrian flow when the east-west traffic has a green light. You can only legally cross when the northbound S. Capitol traffic (which are the lanes you previously crossed) has the green light. Absurd.

by Birdie on May 8, 2013 11:34 am • linkreport

@MLD-

Agreed, there's no shortage of signals that fall short on ADA-required time.

@charlie-

Some signal cabinets can be small and packed into boxes that fit on poles, but in most cases signal cabinets can get pretty huge: especially for more complex situations where there are connections coming in from a number of systems: vehicular heads, pedestrian heads (which may include countdowns or APS / beeping sounds), vehicle detection, advance detection, interconnection, communications lines, complex phasing patterns, priority/preemption, video cameras, red light cameras, emergency override, fault sensors, etc...

All these systems demand a lot of plugs, and many systems are hardwired rather than software-reliant. One example is signal phasing: each separate phase is hardwired... if a malfunction triggers the wrong phases (such as two conflicting approaching both getting green) the signal will automatically go into flashing mode.

And then there's keeping it secured physically as well as digitally, and keeping it weather-proof while also capable of dissipating heat. While I think there's a lot of opportunity for miniaturization, the demand in this country just hasn't really been there -- we generally tend to have enough space at intersections to fit them in.

Of course, signal cabinets can be an inconvenient blockage where sidewalks are busy, narrow, or both... they can also be poorly situated as to block sight distance around corners. Newer signal designs tend to be mindful of this. I've toured some signals in Europe which put the entire cabinet underground- those were pretty neat, but demanded greater cost as far as installation & weather-proofing. They also made it trickier to work in the cabinets since you can't see the signal.

by Bossi on May 8, 2013 11:38 am • linkreport

The news piece and footage showing driver's hitting red lights was anecdotal and meaningless.

Having said that the off peak signal timing on Upper Wisconsin Avenue is atrocious and I think it in some stretches actually rewards speeding rather than following the speed limit because if you gun it you might make one of the irrationally timed lights.

And I agree 100% with Froggie that the poorly timed lights, the general lack of enforcement of all of DC's traffic laws and the overall poor design of the system (to use upper Wisconsin Ave as an example the lack of turn lanes and/or turn prohibitions which create endless lane changes) greatly drive up frustration, road rage and speeding.

I suspect even some of the endless traffic calming measures that get enacted like speed humps and stop signs don't necessarily make neighborhoods safer or as safe as they could be if there was an optimal combination of good planning and traffic engineering and vigorous enforcement.

A steady and controlled traffic flow of 25 MPH on arterials or even local streets is, I suspect, safer, calmer and quieter than the chaotic mix of speed up and slam on the brakes behavior that we have now.

The problem is that I doubt too many folks think there is a chance that DDOT and MPD will ever be up to the task of getting us there so we fall back on these lousy fragmented attempts to make things safer.

And as a side note the DDOT engineer quoted in this story once told me that the lights on Military Road between Reno Road and Rock Creek Park in fact are intentionally miss-timed at the request of the local ANC to discourage speeding and traffic.

Which is stupid beyond comprehension because there is no other way across Rock Creek Park in this area and Military Road is a minor arterial.

But it is not the case that Upper Wisconsin is deliberately miss-timed.

by TomQ on May 8, 2013 11:39 am • linkreport

I'm of the firm belief that a lot of the road rage we see is because of ill-timed lights. Sure, you can't expect EVERY light to be green, but hitting every single red light on a given stretch of street is likely to blow anyone's top off

Well, one big problem is perception. It must be quite rare for someone to actually hit every single red light. Once drivers hit, say, 3 in a row, I expect we're already attuned to think "ugh, I hit every light today" even if the next several are green, or we alternate green and red the rest of the way down 12th St NW, or Wisconsin, or Constitution, or wherever.

I think it resembles the phenomenon of thinking you're in the slow lane when you see 8, 10, 12 cars passing you in heavy traffic. You're in the slow lane for that moment, but you also block out the 20 cars you passed a minute ago when it was your lane's turn to go in stop-and-go traffic.

by worthing on May 8, 2013 11:40 am • linkreport

@MLD:

"There are also places where the lights are terribly timed for bikes; the cycletrack has an issue on 15th if you are going northbound from M, you basically have to stop at Mass Ave, RI Ave, and P St unless you are really speedy. It leads to a lot of cyclists going against the light."

Welcome to what I suspect is the frustration of many. Just because the lights are not timed to "all green" does not mean bikes or cars should just pass through as if they own the road. I was clipped by a bike when I was walking across 15th Street at P (I had the walk signal to cross 15th). At least to me, bike riders seem worse than car drivers when it comes to selecting which rules to follow.

by Transport. on May 8, 2013 11:47 am • linkreport

@Froggie,

I agree with your comment about ill-timed lights.

Consecutive red lights - in which every light turns red as one approaches - is irritating to the point where it's impossible to believe the lights aren't deliberately set to do exactly that.

I've lived all over the country and in most areas, one can "gauge the lights and hit the green" by driving at a steady pace. Even in Manhattan. I've tried that in this area with little success in the suburbs and none at all anywhere in DC least of all downtown or on the main routes like NY Avenue. Speaking of main routes, Georgia Avenue, 16th Street, Wisconsin Ave. and Connecticut Ave. are ridiculous.

When one considers the ill-timed lights, traffic cameras, and shortened yellow lights, it's impossible to believe the DC situation is merely coincidence and not intentional.

And the denial of an open hostility to drivers on the part of DC is an insult to those who are on the receiving end.

by ceefer66 on May 8, 2013 11:50 am • linkreport

I mean, the nonexistent general pattern of DC deliberately pursuing policies that make things worse for drivers.

I think most of the central planners of DC have and would readily acknowledge that their policies are intended to provide more transportation choices by reducing driving or otherwise making it more difficult to easily drive. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but there is no reason to be willfully ignorant.

by Scoot on May 8, 2013 11:53 am • linkreport

Where are these supposed locations/streets where every light turns red as you approach it?

by MLD on May 8, 2013 11:55 am • linkreport

@Bossi, thanks. I'd agree majority of intersections -- even in a dense area -- don't need smaller boxes. But there are plenty that do.

I'd also agree bad light timing is bad for everyone -- but this is an example of where we can drop the culture war and work together. This is not a zero sum game. The example I use is the timers on walk signals -- I think it has improved the experience for everyone.

by charlie on May 8, 2013 12:00 pm • linkreport

@ceefer66

I find that traffic on 16th street, Connecticut, and K street moves pretty well and have not experienced a problem with timing of the lights. I wonder if it is an issue with your speed?

by sk on May 8, 2013 12:05 pm • linkreport

@Scoot: reducing driving doesn't necessarily provide more transportation choices. (And I say this as someone who drives to work ~20 times a year).

@MLD: Georgia Ave can sometimes be like that. Many of the side roads are (I think) have car-activated lights. So the main road can keep stopping. I'm especially thinking of the area around old Walter Reed.

by John on May 8, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

@Charlie --- great example on the timers. They help me driving, biking, and walking.

by John on May 8, 2013 12:09 pm • linkreport

Can a traffic engineer explain this one for me?

Where I grew up, and used to do much more driving and car travel, in Central PA, light signals were totally different.

The signals operated by sensors (those magnetic circuit things embedded in the roads). If you stopped at a red, you could pretty reliably expect the signal to change in your favor within 10 seconds. This was the case at the vast majority of intersections, except for the busiest, which operated on timers (45 seconds this way, 45 that way, with 15 for left turns or so). I've noticed that in DC/MD/VA, regardless of the time of day, these traffic lights remain on this time cycle.

Is this a density/level of traffic issue? I feel like a lot of road-anger is stemmed from this: It's 8:30 AM on a Sunday, you're driving somewhere. You stop at a light and no one is coming the other way - but you're forced to watch the signal (which you can time on the crosswalk) tick down from 45 seconds until you can go. This could also happen at 8:30pm on a Monday. Where I've driven elsewhere - you wouldn't have to wait - the sensors would pick up that you were there (and if the time of day was right and traffic coming the other day was known to be light), the signal would switch so you could proceed.

by Nick on May 8, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

I have noticed in several stretches where the lights are timed (you can hit several greens in a row) but only if you're willing to go 10mph over the speed limit...

by Tina on May 8, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

For all the claims to want to tone down the rhetoric regarding the "war on cars," the language in this article definitely seems a bit snarky and condescending. I'm not saying we shouldn't call out reporters and public figures who make false and misleading claims, but I'm not sure this particular TV report merits the tone of the beginning and end of this article.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy reading GGW and agree with (most of) the views presented here. I just don't want to see this blog give more attention than is needed to a small, vocal minority that opposes change in any form. Let's discredit those who spread lies and inflammatory rhetoric, but let's not do it by resorting to snark and condescension. That only feeds the stereotype of GGW readers as bunch of yuppie liberals who think they know what's best for everyone.

by Rebecca on May 8, 2013 12:15 pm • linkreport

A few have stated that lights in NoVa have the same problem, but the lights in Old Town Alexandria, particularly Rt. 1, are very well-timed. You can go for multiple blocks without having to stop. Also, I'd like to add to the list of abysmal DC street light-timing Constitution Ave. I'll never drive that road again if I can help it.

by DH on May 8, 2013 12:19 pm • linkreport

I'm glad I hit refresh. Rebecca beat me to it. The meme exists here more than anywhere else, but instead of disregarding them or moving past them, things like this basically reinforce them.

by selxic on May 8, 2013 12:24 pm • linkreport

@DH, Arlington Blvd in Arlington is another example. I can usually make it to the Fairfax border with one stop -- and from there on it is a giant mess.

@Nick; my guess is a lot of the sensors have gone bad. Sure, in urban areas maybe sensors aren't always appropriate.

by charlie on May 8, 2013 12:26 pm • linkreport

DH, Route 1 in Old Town flows well, but as Matt said, north of that can be frustrating.

by selxic on May 8, 2013 12:29 pm • linkreport

@Nick

Most of the streets do not have sensors in them I don't think. There is too much traffic for them to be useful. I do agree that on weekends some streets (16th comes to mind) seem like you end up stopping at every. single. light.

by MLD on May 8, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport

What about the awful ped signal timing at Delaware and Mass NE? (IE in front of the fountain at Union Station). I assume it's all part of DC's nefarious "war on people who don't drive to Capitol Hill". (But seriously, the signal timing is awful.)

by Steve S. on May 8, 2013 12:36 pm • linkreport

That might mean drivers on that main road more often get a red, but if the bus caries 20 people and 5 drivers have to wait a little longer, it's a net gain.

What happens if there is also a bus on the main road, as there would likely be?

DC could probably help everyone better traverse a place like Dupont Circle if it reduced the number of roads coming in, but that would surely spark even more "war on cars" claims even if it actually helps cars and the people inside as well as pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders.

Well at the moment, 6 of the 8 roads that come into Dupont circle are routes for popular Metrobus lines (G2, N2, N3, N4, N6, 42, & L2) and re-routing cars away from Dupont circle onto north-south streets like 18th & 20th would impede other Metrobus lines that use these streets (L1, D1, D3, D6, H1 & 37).

A lot of the traffic problem in Dupont Circle comes not only from the timing of the lights but from bad behavior (of SOVs and buses alike) -- cutting people off, merging into and out of lanes, blocking intersections, etc. I don't know a great deal about traffic engineering but I bet that most traffic engineers would tell you that predicting or responding to human behavior is always one of the biggest challenge in designing good signals.

by Scoot on May 8, 2013 12:49 pm • linkreport

I don't know about every light being red, but consecutive green lights certainly are a rare commodity on Wisconsin. It was always very tedious and frustrating to commute along there.

I heard Los Angeles just synced all their traffic lights to try to reduce traffic backups. I hope DC can get the tech needed to try that here.

by Chris S. on May 8, 2013 1:05 pm • linkreport

I think most of the central planners of DC have and would readily acknowledge that their policies are intended to provide more transportation choices by reducing driving or otherwise making it more difficult to easily drive.

The thing is that reducing driving and making it more difficult to drive doesn't magically make these other transportation choices appear, and that has always been DC's transit weakness: at the end of the day, bus and metrorail service isn't going to fill in the gap left by not driving, simply because bus and metrorail service isn't particularly effective or runs often enough to be useful.

Let's discredit those who spread lies and inflammatory rhetoric, but let's not do it by resorting to snark and condescension

I'm sorry, but if you don't like snark, I don't think that the internet is the place for you.

by JustMe on May 8, 2013 1:28 pm • linkreport

"I think most of the central planners of DC have and would readily acknowledge that their policies are intended to provide more transportation choices by reducing driving or otherwise making it more difficult to easily drive. "

No, I do not think they would. The addition of vehicle capacity on the 11th street bridge, for example, would seem to belie that. Rather they want to want to provide more transportation choices, period. What makes it difficult to drive is the sheer number of people attempting to, in a dense area.

Sometimes they will do things that help the choices, at the expense of drivers - and sometimes not. But they are not attempting to make driving more difficult for its own sake. Though it may appear that way to folks used to policy choices that prioritize driving more.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 8, 2013 1:38 pm • linkreport

Ok here's the thing. A lot of planners are definitely favoring policies that will clearly limit driving and speeds. That's not the goal. The goals is to promote safety and ease for other transportation modes: walking, biking, transit etc. Basically they are trying to shift the paradigm from one where car is first to where all are relatively equal. I don't think there is any conspiracy.

by Alan B. on May 8, 2013 1:49 pm • linkreport

@Transport--Good point about buses and light synchronization. This seems to get ignored here.

DC did a major synchronization project late in the Anthony Williams administration. Synching gets disrupted over time due to various things that take out traffic signals. It did make a noticable difference esp. in classic red light corridors like mid to upper Connecticut Avenue.

Synching can be a traffic calming tool if depending on the speed limit of choice. For decades, Carnegie Avenue in Cleveland was synchronized during rush hour over a span of several miles from downtown to the avenue's end near Case Western Reserve University, at which point it crosses or joins several other commuter routes. This was done because the road was one way during rush hour, but the speed was "moderate" (33 or 38 mph, I forget which) which was fast enough to move traffic and prevent bunching but didn't make it into a speedway. Although Carnegie has mostly industrial and institutional uses, and isn't a major pedestrian route in the DC sense, it did include the Cleveland Clinic campus and a number of ther points where pedestrians is figure into usage. Cleveland Clinic mitigated some of this with skywalks, but Carnegie has supported other pedestrian uses including retail in the past w/o this being too inconvenient.

If you want to see what constant red lights do--try driving in Atlanta (I used to live there). their idea of "traffic calming" is frequent reds and it usually means a lot of "light running" and rapid acceleration when lights change. And quite a bit of road rage. Atlanta is notorious for lacking sidewalks in many places, but that's often not the major issue on thorougfares.

by Rich on May 8, 2013 1:51 pm • linkreport

To quote Judge Judy, "Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining." I've lived in DC for 13 years. The timing of the lights has most definitely changed (for the worse) over the past 3-4 years. You used to be able to drive on Q St. all the way from Connecticut Ave. to Rhode Island Ave. at the very reasonable speed of 25 without stopping. The same was true for the opposite direction on R St. from Rhode Island Ave. to Connecticut Ave. Since about 3 years ago, you now have to stop at nearly every light.

I am a driver and a biker. When I bike down the same streets, the lights all turn green for me. The city is simply trying to frustrate people into leaving their cars and hopping on bikes.

When the city sets the timing of the lights such that drivers have to stop at every light, more air pollution is created. There's no reason why the lights can't be set to allow traffic to flow at the speed limit.

by Brian D on May 8, 2013 1:57 pm • linkreport

Even if that is the case as a transit user, biker, and pedestrian I'd like more lights timed for me. Why should all lights be primarily timed for optimal car performance? As the article mentions, 16th is a good example of a street that is lighted to accomodate speedy north south travel. I don't see why timing other routes for bikes or peds is simiilarly unacceptable?

by Alan B. on May 8, 2013 2:33 pm • linkreport

Why should all lights be primarily timed for optimal car performance? As the article mentions, 16th is a good example of a street that is lighted to accomodate speedy north south travel. I don't see why timing other routes for bikes or peds is similarly unacceptable?

Good point. Why not time them for 15 mph? Then everyone (car or bike) can take advantage of the seamless flow of traffic...

by oboe on May 8, 2013 2:39 pm • linkreport

"@ceefer66

I find that traffic on 16th street, Connecticut, and K street moves pretty well and have not experienced a problem with timing of the lights. I wonder if it is an issue with your speed?"
------

20-30 mph is an "issue"?

Perhaps you would prefer I get out of the car, strap it onto my back, and carry it?

by ceefer66 on May 8, 2013 2:41 pm • linkreport

@JustMe

Actually, I'm a big fan of snark (and the Internet too). Just not when it creates a distraction from otherwise productive dicussions about issues I care about, such as transportation policy.

I saw nothing in the NBC4 segment that alluded to the "war on cars" so why does this article even bother to mention it? We all know it's not real; don't add fuel to the fire.

Furthermore, I'm confused by the continued reference to the TV reporter by name. Maybe I just haven't been paying attention, maybe the dude's reporting sucks, I don't know. But if comments on this site are supposed to "address the substance of the argument being made, not the person making the argument", shouldn't the articles themselves be held to the same standard?

by Rebecca on May 8, 2013 2:44 pm • linkreport

@Nick, the use of actuated signals is best for roads with medium traffic volumes and few pedestrians. Traffic-actuated intersections can have shorter green times meaning they can optimize traffic flow, but at the expense of appropriate "walk" signal durations. To get a "walk" signal the ped has to press a button, which decreases pedestrian-friendliness.

by recyclist on May 8, 2013 2:45 pm • linkreport

Rebecca

there are really two issues being raised here

1. What is the best policy for light timing, whats possible, etc

2. How do main stream media cover transportation stories

2 is of course related to 1 - showing that the report A. Didnt make sense, technically and B. Parts of it, at least, implied a "war on cars" or something similar then naturally raises the question of bias in media coverage - not necessarily deliberate, but flowing from common assumptions.

Should it have been snarky about Tuss? maybe not - but I note that he has done something like this before, on a different issue. If you are going to be a transport reporter in this town, I suspect you should be aware of these kinds of assumptions, and that Alpert is on the watch for them.

And yes, bloggers have been using snark aimed at MSM coverage in their areas of expertise, as long as there have been bloggers, I think. At least DA isnt pushing for a shooting war.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 8, 2013 2:53 pm • linkreport

As someone who has been consistently frustrated by hitting every red light driving north on Georgia Avenue or 16th Street at night (or more likely, as Worthing says, at least three in a row that make it seem like "every" light") I would argue with the title of this article. No one expects to get all green lights all the time, but I don't think it's unreasonable to expect not to hit consecutive reds with long cycles on empty roads with no cross traffic. Maximizing multi-modal traffic flow during rush hours is an extremely difficult task, and I'd be hesitant to complain about light cycles in these instances unless there is an obviously grievous error. But the entire metro area, up through at least Baltimore, seems pretty incompetent at managing cycles at night. Whether it's consecutive reds, 60-second cycles for tiny cross streets, or failure to switch to blinking reds and yellows after 10 or 11 in the evening, the local transportation engineers seem to have forgotten that they don't need to program for rush hour traffic all day long. In the eight years I've lived in the area, I could count on one hand the number of intersections I've seen switch to a flashing red/yellow at night when there is close to no one on the road, pedestrians included. Growing up in suburban Connecticut, almost every light in town switched to this model at 10 or 11. I realize that DC/Baltimore is normally a much more densely populated place and has a lot more traffic, but at midnight, most neighborhoods here are just as empty as they are everywhere else in the country.

by Ted on May 8, 2013 2:53 pm • linkreport

Ted, lots of us hit red lights when walking too. You can't expect lights to be timed for everyone to only be driving everywhere, just like I can't expect them to be timed on 15 second cycles that would be optimal for me to cross streets. I don't like waiting 60 seconds to cross a major road at rush hour but that's part of getting around a city.

by Alan B. on May 8, 2013 2:57 pm • linkreport

Alan, I completely agree, all modes have to be taken into consideration. But I'm not talking about rush hour, I'm talking about 9, 10, 11 at night in non-core areas where there are few cars and even fewer pedestrians. Every side street off Georgia Avenue does not need a 30-second cycle at 10 in the evening. And the difference with walking is, if you hit a don't walk signal and nobody is coming, you can cross anyway. If you actually wait, we'll you're far more patient than 99 percent of the population.

by Ted on May 8, 2013 3:02 pm • linkreport

I watched the video and I thought it was pretty balanced. I did not really see the war on cars narrative. The video seemed to make pretty much the same points as DA makes:

- There many reasons why traffic engineers might time lights in a way that appears wrong to a driver traveling a particular direction

- lights are not going to be green for everyone all the time

- many signals in DC aren't timed with a lot of forethought

- Many signal timings could be better.

by Scoot on May 8, 2013 3:09 pm • linkreport

I'm about as big of an advocate for biking and walking/ped safety as you will meet but the notion of synchronizing traffic signals for either group is absurd and will certainly be inefficient.

Cars can essentially travel at the same speed regardless of the drivers ability and in city conditions regardless of the condition of the car or road but the opposite is true for both bikers and pedestrians.

Even when I walk or ride my bike my speed varies greatly depending on how many uncooperative boys I am dragging along.

I think we can all learn to be more patient and that should apply to pedestrians and bicyclists as well (and does anyone else find it astonishing how many pedestrians run to beat a yellow or red traffic light?) so lets all relax a bit.

But smoothing out traffic flow and calming down drivers makes roadways much safer for bikes and pedestrians so I think that is worth considering as well.

by TomQ on May 8, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

"Cars can essentially travel at the same speed regardless of the drivers ability "

Where I live most folks drive at 5 to 10 MPH over the limit. Those folks who choose to drive at 2MPH over the limit, instead, will hit lights differently. In rainy weather, the speeds people feel comfortable driving will vary even more. I would suggest that on most arterials you will find people passing each other, due to this.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 8, 2013 3:18 pm • linkreport

I might not have a problem crossing a street against the walk signal at night but I wouldnt really want to put kids/old people/ the disabled in that situation unecessarily so someone can shave a couple of minute off their driving trip.

by Alan B. on May 8, 2013 3:22 pm • linkreport

For every one of you getting red lights at every signal along a corridor, someone is getting green lights at every signal along the same corridor. I've worked with a lot of traffic engineers in my career (including some in DC), and none of them sit around cackling gleefully at the thought of increased congestion.

In order to have a state of the art system, DDOT would need to provide communications from a central command center to every signal cabinet in the District. Nowadays that takes the form of fiber optics in underground conduits. Many of the cabinets are old and small and would have to be replaced with larger cabinets to house the equipment necessary to integrate with a coordinated communication system. These two things alone take millions upon millions of dollars and will disrupt all modes of transportation during construction, with the larger cabinets being permanent reductions in already limited sidewalk space. None of this is impossible, but it is very expensive.

Once you get that in, you reach the signal timing issue. Urban signal timing aims to keep cycle lengths (the time to provide red/yellow/green to all approaches) low because the shorter distance between signals leaves less room for vehicles to queue. (Suburban signal timing keeps cycle lengths long to clear out long queues, which are permissible because of long distances between signals.) Cycle lengths can't go too low, however, because of the increasing time required to provide for pedestrians crossing the street. The current standard is 3.5 ft/second, which takes the elderly and the mobility impaired into account.

Then add in the unique street network in DC. The diagonal streets create some incredibly short block lengths and many intersections with odd angles. Coordinating all of that to the degree that drivers seem to expect is impossible. Could it be better than the current situation? Sure. Can you expect every light to be green on your particular route out of town? No.

Until the City Council and Mayor are willing to invest millions of dollars into infrastructure, commit hundreds of hours of staff time (or pay a consultant), and say no to neighborhoods who think that their local interests should take precedence over those of the general public, things will not significantly improve.

by I have a driver's license therefore I am a traffic engineer on May 8, 2013 3:37 pm • linkreport

Alan, agreed once again. But since they're relatively rare in certain neighborhoods at many times of the night, it seems more efficient to install a manually-activated walk signal than to assume pedestrians are there at times.

Often times though, there aren't even pedestrians to consider. The most egregiously timed light I know of doesn't even have a walk signal, crosswalk, or sidewalks and I've never seen a pedestrian in the area, day or night. The red light is purely 30 seconds for ghost vehicle traffic coming from the other direction. Granted, the way I travel through this intersection doesn't have much traffic either, but that's why a blinking yellow/red would be far more efficient.

by Ted on May 8, 2013 3:46 pm • linkreport

I have a driver's license therefore I am a traffic engineer

As a driver, I don't know much about traffic engineering. What I DO know is that the situation is worse in DC than it is elsewhere, and I have NO problem taking traffic engineers to task for that situation. There is no reason we should expect or accept living in a major metro area that has a lower quality of life than comparable cities, and there are no excuses for it.

by JustMe on May 8, 2013 4:06 pm • linkreport

I will not accept that I have to manually activate walk signals unless drivers need to get out of their car and do the same thing.

by Alan B. on May 8, 2013 4:11 pm • linkreport

And it's comments like that that propagate the idea of a war on cars. Good luck crossing a street in most of the country, you'll be waiting a while!

by Ted on May 8, 2013 4:19 pm • linkreport

I will not accept that I have to manually activate walk signals unless drivers need to get out of their car and do the same thing.

I think it is commonly known that most of those manual activation buttons are not really hooked up to anything (proverbially speaking) :(

by Scoot on May 8, 2013 4:25 pm • linkreport

The point of the article is that Washington, DC's traffic signals are not really synchronized at all, despite what DDOT has sometimes said in the past. I frankly don't know what they've been spending money on, because synchronized lights have been around for a while and cities like LA are already installing the advanced generation of controls.

No driver should realistically expect a rolling carpet of green lights as she or he drives. But it makes sense on a lot of levels to synchronize the lights on sections of the major arterial roads in particular as much as possible. How many have noticed that for years in Manhattan the north-south avenues' lights turn from red to green, thus permitting traffic to travel a reasonable distance before all of the cross signals in that area turn red.

In DC, it's almost the complete opposite story. Take two examples with which I am familiar. Southbound on Wisconsin Ave., even in light traffic on an early weekend morning, frequently one has to stop and wait at every single light from Porter St. to Garfield. A short time after one light at which one has waited turns green, the next one turns red. And so on. The same thing happens on Nebraska, from Foxhall to Ward Circle. Every. Single. LIght.

Mr. Cheeks of DDOT is wrong (once again) to suggest that the lack of timing is a commuter/motorist vs neighborhood issue. Neighborhood residents and pedestrians generally have every interest in making sure that traffic isn't unnecessarily stalled on the major arterial roads. The impact of unsynchronized lights (aside from pollution resulting from many idling vehicles and occasional driver road rage) is that frustrated drivers begin peeling off the main roads to drive frenetically through the side streets. Pedestrian signals on the wide roads should be timed for slower and elderly residents to cross, and this may require more time. But then the traffic signals should turn green for a reasonable time to allow traffic to go a distance before a coordinated red cycle repeats itself.
]
The DC council members with oversight of DDOT should ask why DDOT hasn't been making syncronized lights more of a priority. It's really in everyone's interest.

by Alf on May 8, 2013 4:31 pm • linkreport

Yes, wanting to be treated as an equal as a pedestrian = war on cars. No hyperbole there...

by Alan B. on May 8, 2013 4:47 pm • linkreport

David, well written article. Bossi’s comments on the reasons for good timing are well put in the comments.

Just a quick note – there seems to be a misconception that “DC doesn't have a state-of-the-art system to control all of the lights centrally.”

Yes, DDOT’s system is not state-of-the-art, but is at least state-of-the-practice from the late-90’s which is better than many major cities. Most traffic signals in DC are in communication with the central system software through twisted pair copper with DSL encoding and some fiber (not all…like ~1550 of ~1630, but most and that is the major corridors and downtown; includes the cameras; and does assume that the comm lines are working). There is a lot of flexibility in the signal timing parameters available in the existing software. One can change timing plans from the central software, though carefully because the reversible lanes LED signs are linked to the rush hour timing plans (but not the static regulatory signs). But it does take data, time and resources to create flexible timing plans for rush hour and off-peak.

The issue with the signal systems in DC is that there is typically insufficient in-house resources to update signal timing on a recurrent regular basis and it has been done through an outside contract city-wide every 4-6 years. (and James does have some smart people working with him in-house and for him under contract). Major corridors were typically updated with major planning or construction projects where new signal infrastructure would be installed.

This issue is not unique to DDOT, rather it is a problem nationwide... there is money available for capital projects, but less resources available to operate and maintain the existing signal systems (or even the new stuff once installed).

The real bottom line is what are the goals and objectives for the community that are to be put into practice by managing the signal system? There could be many alternatives between maximize throughput of rush hour vehicle traffic to equitibly serving all modes and emphasizing transit. These would need to be prepared, agreed upon, then specfic strategies and tactics can be created. This isn't new stuff and there a many resources available.

by Doug on May 8, 2013 5:06 pm • linkreport

Being treated equally does not mean the same, especially in defiance of common sense. Drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists are not the same, so while they should be given equal consideration, that does not mean they should each have the exact same rules. Drivers have to get licenses and pay insurance, so would you say that cyclists (or pedestrians?) should have to do the same because that would be equal treatment according to your definition?

Pedestrians, by definition, are on foot and have to be physically present at a crosswalk to use it, so pressing a button is not an inconvenience. To suggest that drivers do the same is completely impractical. The perception of a war on cars does not come from ideas that elevate the prominence of walking and cycling, but rather trying to impose restrictions on driving that often have seemingly little to do with bike/ped safety or accessibility. (Maybe your comment was in jest, but being the Internet, you never can tell and it sounded serious to me.)

During the day in heavily pedestrian areas, it makes complete sense to have the walk signals on an automatic setting. But at times and/or places where there are few pedestrians, I think it'd be difficult to argue that anybody would really be that harmed or inconvenienced to have to push a button to cross. In fact, I would think it would actually be better for pedestrians, as the signals could be programmed in such a way that you could get a near immediate walk signal if nobody else has crossed recently, rather than waiting for a red light for cross traffic.

by Ted on May 8, 2013 5:08 pm • linkreport

@Ted,

Pedestrians, by definition, are on foot and have to be physically present at a crosswalk to use it, so pressing a button is not an inconvenience.

On the occasions I find myself in one of the more anti-pedestrian suburban neighborhoods, there's nothing that makes me feel more equal than getting to the little push button a split second after the light turns green, and having to wait through two (Sprawlville) light cycles in order to get to a Walk signal. So in those (common) situations, having to press the button is absolutely an inconvenience.

by oboe on May 8, 2013 5:15 pm • linkreport

"Pedestrians, by definition, are on foot and have to be physically present at a crosswalk to use it, so pressing a button is not an inconvenience. To suggest that drivers do the same is completely impractical. The perception of a war on cars does not come from ideas that elevate the prominence of walking and cycling, but rather trying to impose restrictions on driving that often have seemingly little to do with bike/ped safety or accessibility. (Maybe your comment was in jest, but being the Internet, you never can tell and it sounded serious to me.)

During the day in heavily pedestrian areas, it makes complete sense to have the walk signals on an automatic setting. But at times and/or places where there are few pedestrians, I think it'd be difficult to argue that anybody would really be that harmed or inconvenienced to have to push a button to cross. In fact, I would think it would actually be better for pedestrians, as the signals could be programmed in such a way that you could get a near immediate walk signal if nobody else has crossed recently, rather than waiting for a red light for cross traffic."

I dont think anyone serious expects drivers to get out and push a button. I think the commenter you are responding to is annoyed with having to do it as a ped.

While its not that difficult as a ped, it can be a huge pain in the butt as a cyclist. I personally like Hawk lites, because were I ride and walk the alt is often no protection at all. But I can see where someone in a pedestrian dense city wants better than that.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 8, 2013 5:18 pm • linkreport

Getting a license and paying for insurance is beyond irrelevant. Walking and driving are not even in the same category unless you think we need to license people to operate their legs?

Really all you are saying is that you want the system to cater to your needs. I want it to cater to mine. In the end it's a compromise. The idea that there is a war on cars because you don't have a virtual highway from your house to wherever you want to go downtown strikes me as being the jest if anything.

by Alan B. on May 8, 2013 5:19 pm • linkreport

I don't doubt that @Doug makes valid points, and that the timing of lights in DC could be *marginally* improved--on large arterials like Penn Ave, New York Ave, Connecticut, etc...

But I suspect "I have a driver's license" nailed the broader issues, and that for the most part DC's street grid is entirely too chaotic to deliver significant returns.

As Doug said, "This issue is not unique to DDOT, rather it is a problem nationwide... there is money available for capital projects, but less resources available to operate and maintain the existing signal systems (or even the new stuff once installed)."

The question then is, how much of scarce resources (and how often) do we want to allocate for a minor improvement on what are largely suburban commuter routes?

by oboe on May 8, 2013 5:21 pm • linkreport

While its not that difficult as a ped, it can be a huge pain in the butt as a cyclist.

There are about a half dozen intersections I traverse on my way to work where my signal will never change from red to green unless a car comes and triggers the sensor--or I roll over to the pedestrian button and hit it. I like to think of these as "jaybiking training" since I will pretty much ignore these lights 100% of the time and treat it as a stop sign.

by oboe on May 8, 2013 5:25 pm • linkreport

I realize that Alan wasn't actually proposing that drivers should get out of their cars to push a button, but thinking that pedestrians should never have to is a bit much too. Lights and signals and the transportation network in general absolutely should be a compromise between efficiently moving people on all sorts of modes, car, bike, feet, scooter, Segway, unicycle, whatever. But what I and many other commenters on this article are saying is that there are plenty of times where the traffic engineers have made it unnecessarily inefficient for drivers without really benefiting anyone else. Do I mind waiting for pedestrians to cross a street? Absolutely not. Do I mind waiting at three red lights in a row at 11 pm at night in the unlikely event a pedestrian may cross? Yes I do. If you think that makes me selfish, then fine, I guess I am. I really see it as more of an efficiency issue. Why make drivers continually stop, increase air pollution, and make the system less efficient when it doesn't need to be? I don't think that every intersection in the city needs to give priority to drivers or change their timings, but there are tools (specifically the blinking red and yellows) that traffic engineers in this area don't even seem to have in their toolbox. They don't belong at every intersection, or even a majority of them. But they should certainly be an option, and right now they don't seem to be.

by Ted on May 8, 2013 5:34 pm • linkreport

@ Oboe who wrote "The question then is, how much of scarce resources (and how often) do we want to allocate for a minor improvement on what are largely suburban commuter routes?"

With all respect, this is short cited. Having a coordinated, state of the art traffic signal control system reduces unnecessary idling and pollution (experienced most by DC residents), reduces cut-through traffic and reduces time wasted waiting at a succession of unsynchronized sigmals.

It's not correct to think that only commmuters use the major arterial roads. Do you think that Washingtonians don't drive on Connecticut, 16th, Wisconsin or Nebraska? And keeping through traffic on the major arterials rather than having drivers divert to narrow, residential streets is not only good traffic sense. It also makes sense from the standpoints of pedestrian safety and quality of life in DC.

The DC government has the money to spend on modernizing our infrastructure. Perhaps if less were spent on directed contracts to companies owned by Jeffrey Thompson, Washington could get a 21st century traffic control system.

by Alf on May 8, 2013 5:43 pm • linkreport

E Street NW has perfectly timed lights for drivers at about 20mph. Block after block, a driver usually hits a green light. When I cycle on it, in the very nice bike lane, the green turns red on nearly block. Clearly there is a war on bikes.

by Tom A. on May 8, 2013 5:43 pm • linkreport

Ted, that kind of common sense argument just won't fly here.

by Chris S. on May 8, 2013 5:43 pm • linkreport

I think I will use a car analogy here...work with me here...:

Hypothetically DC's traffic signal system is a Toyota Tacoma... about 8-10 years old, 96K on the clock. Good truck. But you have to maintain it, need to use it and not let it sit, but sometime you don't use all the features (A/C you keep off, don't tow often). Now you could send some time maintain it well and really use all its capabilities and it will last another ten years, and you know how to fix most things on it. Maybe upgrade the intake or suspension to make it more capable, fix the some rust and paint it. Would be a good value doing this. [analogy -- current DDOT signal system]

On the other hand you could by a new truck, for more money, that needs a more qualified mechanic because of new technology, has really big aluminum wheels and the off-road package (you don't go off-road), but would still need some time to be maintained by someone. Pretty wheels don't make it more capable and options you don't use don't make it more capable either. [analogy --new all the bells and whistle "modern" traffic signal system.]

One can do most of the coordination people are talking about here with DDOT existing technology and dollars and time for smart people to time the signals to meet the community's goals. One could add a few components like signal priority and detection. [Though the goals of a commuter from Maryland or Virginia are different than a resident of Michigan Park, Anacostia, or Cleveland Park -- so who is the community?]

My point is that someone needs to make an informed value judgment of how important this is in comparison to other transportation priorities.

by Doug on May 8, 2013 6:07 pm • linkreport

I don't buy this article at all. On Connecticut Ave., between Calvert and Van Ness, I will inevitably hit 3-5 lights in a row, sometimes more. It's absurdly common to see the next light turn red right as your light turns green. It's similar on various stretches of Wisconsin past Massachusetts and 16th Street north of Columbia Heights (and probably others I'm not on as often).

What's worse are the north/south corridors in downtown when there's any semblance of traffic. Going from the convention center to 395 on 9th street yesterday, at *every* *single* *light*, the next light turned red right as the current light turned green. Similar things happen on 14th and 15th between Massachusetts and Independence, even on weekends.

All those cars sitting in traffic are contributing to ground level pollution, CO2 emissions, lost productivity and a lot of overall ill-will. This city has, by far, the worst timed light situation I've ever experienced, and it is actively harmful to the community. Dismissing this issue as being about whiny drivers who shouldn't be driving anyways is just going to alienate people. There doesn't have to be a contradiction between making the city better for drivers (because we all have to do it sometimes) and making the city better for other forms of transportation.

by AB on May 8, 2013 6:31 pm • linkreport

My point is that someone needs to make an informed value judgment of how important this is in comparison to other transportation priorities.

How's this? Most other people who own a truck seem to have one with working air conditioning, a GPS navigator, and integrated bluetooth for your phone. Now some of us are realizing that OUR truck is workable, but can be pretty unpleasant to operate, especially given that much nicer trucks are available on the market, which lots of other people have been driving for the past 3-5 years. And we're wondering, "Why do we have to tolerate such a run-down truck, when there are so many nicer options that seems pretty straightforward to afford, as most other people have them? At the very least, couldn't we just BUY an external GPS navigator and USE the A/C every now and then instead of making us all suffer?"

I want to believe, on one hand, that DC is the parent who is just driving an unreliable/unpleasant beater because he's socking away lots of money for the college fund. But I suspect it's because he has a gambling habit and wants to buy a sailboat.

by JustMe on May 8, 2013 8:05 pm • linkreport

Sailboat = Streetcar

by Some Ideas on May 8, 2013 8:11 pm • linkreport

I understand the benefits of improved traffic flow. I just think there's very little evidence that "light timing" will provide any significant improvement. Most of the comments above just jump to the conclusion that that's the case. I think common sense says otherwise, though I'm willing to listen to evidence to the contrary.

Until there is evidence to the contrary, it seems that light timing in an old city like DC (or Boston, or London) will have little effect on traffic flow. It'll be an expensive reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

by oboe on May 8, 2013 9:30 pm • linkreport

My solution is easy: First, I decide that there is a text or email I must send while driving. Then, I resolve that I will not type the message until I am stopped at a red light. At that point, I never see another red light.

by David on May 9, 2013 6:47 am • linkreport

"All those cars sitting in traffic are contributing to ground level pollution, CO2 emissions, lost productivity and a lot of overall ill-will. This city has, by far, the worst timed light situation I've ever experienced, and it is actively harmful to the community."
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Exactly.

And if the badly-timed traffic lights aren't intentional, then they are the result of incompetence on the part of a "government" that is quite frankly a joke.

Not good either way.

by ceefer66 on May 9, 2013 7:47 am • linkreport

Agreed with Steve S. on the Delaware/Mass crossing. Ever since they rebuilt Columbus Circle, the timing of that intersection has been insane. Pedestrians sometimes get less than 10 seconds to cross.

Weirder still, drivers on Mass will often have a green light when 1st and Louisiana are red. I get that traffic engineering can sometimes be unintuitive, but the timing of this particular light is very clearly broken, and results in a sub-optimal experience for everyone.

There are also a few traffic bottlenecks where the light timing and configuration of traffic movements seems exceptionally poor. A few come to mind:
* The Florida/Rhode Island intersection. Especially if you're traveling east on Florida.
* Florida/4th NE. Especially if you're traveling west on Florida or a Pedestrian.
* The entirety of Mt Vernon Square. Especially if you want to travel east/west.

I'd also love to suggest removing certain lights entirely. There are a lot of lights on Capitol Hill that seem to be completely unnecessary, while others could switch to flashing red (4-way-stop) during non peak hours.

by andrew on May 9, 2013 9:29 am • linkreport

What everyone doesn't realize is that the timing of the lights DOES change during rush hour. During those times, the lights are coordinated to move lots of vehicles as quickly and efficiently as possible. It changes back to stop-and-go timing around 6:30 p.m.

My drive down Rhode Island Ave. from Lincoln Road to Logan Circle is incredibly smooth before 6:30 - I only have to stop at 2 or 3 lights. If I leave after 6:30, I get a red light at nearly every intersection.

I suspect the timing changes based on the same hours that certain left turns are not allowed: 7-9:30 am and 4-6:30 pm. Try my experiment out for yourself sometime, and you'll see what I'm talking about: the same drive that gives you lots of green lights during rush hour will make you stop at nearly every light when it's not rush hour. Pay particular attention on Memorial Day... you'll get the rush hour timing without all of the usual traffic and you'll make unbelievable time.

The city DOES have the ability to fix this. Why the residents of this city don't demand that the lights be on rush hour timing all the time is beyond me.

by Brian D on May 9, 2013 10:19 am • linkreport

Why the residents of this city don't demand that the lights be on rush hour timing all the time is beyond me.

Basically, DC'ers are very good at accepting mediocrity and saying, "that's just the way it is."

by JustMe on May 9, 2013 10:22 am • linkreport

Clearly there is some combination of good timing, good timing except that a light or two in the sequences are just messed up, incomprehensible timing that might make sense if someone explained it, and bad timing.

Major arteries like Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and East Capitol seem very well timed to me during rush hour (though in some cases the sheer volume is too great for that to do much good). They often seem timed for a bit above the speed limit, but I can't tell for sure.

Mid-day, the timing in unclear. But it is surely reasonable to do the timing in a way so that drivers are not speeding at 10mph over the limit through town.

One thing I never see in this areas, which one often sees in the NJ shore, is the simplest timing of all: The lights all go red at exactly the same time on a given road. This means that drivers predictably hit a red light after driving about 90 seconds (unless they are lucky enough get just beyond a light before it turns red). It also creates very predictable breaks in traffic between lights for pedestrians.

by JimT on May 9, 2013 10:54 am • linkreport

"The question then is, how much of scarce resources (and how often) do we want to allocate for a minor improvement on what are largely suburban commuter routes?"

Not a minor improvement.

And since when do 'largely suburban commuters' use DC streets?

Even off of main arteries there are countless lights in DC that are terribly timed.

On streets that very rarely see commuters.

Street light timing is something every city does. Or should do.

Worth noting also it doesn't just benefit drivers. It benefits everyone.

by Hillman on May 9, 2013 11:41 am • linkreport

Basically, DC'ers are very good at accepting mediocrity and saying, "that's just the way it is."

Alternatively, we could say DC'ers are just as good at throwing large amounts of cash at solutions to insoluble problems.

by oboe on May 10, 2013 10:06 am • linkreport

@oboe who wrote: 'Alternatively, we could say DC'ers are just as good at throwing large amounts of cash at solutions to insoluble problems.'

Traffic signal syncronization isn't an insolutble problem. Other cities like NYC have been doing it for years. Turn to a vendor with a proven record of making it work somewhere else.

Now, if one prefers the usual path of throwing large amounts of cash at well-connnected, home-grown 8-a contractors who have never done it before (but "understand DC," as they say), well then, yes, we will have another expensive, insoluable problem.

BTW, what the heck is a "DC'er"?!? I thought the term for denizens of Washington, DC is "Washingtonian."

by Juno on May 11, 2013 10:31 am • linkreport

This begs the question. You say signal synchronization works. I don't disagree necessarily. But I think the benefit would be much less great expected for reasons people have touched on above.

On the other hand, in the unlikely event that it provided enormous benefits and helped traffic flow more freely, you'd also have the problem of induced demand.

http://nozziwalkablestreets.com/2012/07/03/traffic-light-synchronization-is-not-a-good-idea/

by oboe on May 11, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

No... making the existing system supply more efficient without adding new permanent supply (e.g. a lane) is not inducing demand, it is changing the elasticity of the curve.

by Doug on May 13, 2013 10:58 pm • linkreport

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