- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2001

Most days, Virginia and Maryland commuters crawl into downtown Washington in a foul mood because they have had to run a gantlet of poorly synchronized traffic lights that change from county to county and one jurisdiction to another.
But that is about to change. Officials in both states and the District have been in talks for some time to implement a regionwide timing system that would put all traffic lights on the same time clock, local transportation officials said last week. That could mean a traffic light in Prince William County, Va., would run on the same clock as its counterpart traffic signal in Prince Georges County.
"There absolutely has been discussion to implement such a system," said Mark Hagan, a SMART traffic signal systems manager with the Virginia Department of Transportations Northern Virginia district.
"Thats our goal, and its a nonstop process," he said. "If we got someone to a babysitter, or a doctors appointment 10 minutes early, then were improving their quality of life."
Motorists traveling Wisconsin Avenue NW may see the change even sooner. For the first time in recent history, officials in the District and Montgomery County will synchronize the traffic signals along the heavily traveled Route 355 corridor to alleviate the traffic congestion throughout the day.
The signals there are spaced so close together — one at every 200 feet between the Maryland-D.C. border — that commuters familiar with the 100-second timing cycle along the Montgomery County portion of the corridor would come to a stop once they crossed into the District. In the District, most signals operate under an 80-second cycle.
"It was something that needed to be done to help ease the traffic there," said William McGuirk, chief of the Traffic Signal Division of the Districts transportation department.
"We needed to somehow break apart the platoon of vehicles coming into the city on that road."
Synchronizing the signals along Wisconsin Avenue, specifically in the Friendship Heights area, also would ease up the gridlock in other parts of the county, said Emil Wolanin, chief of transportation systems management with Montgomery Countys department of Public Works and Transportation. Commuters could see fewer traffic jams in Bethesda and Chevy Chase as a result, Mr. Wolanin said.
"Its about helping commuters get out of sitting in traffic," he said. "If we set our clocks so that we maintain a progression along the road, then we wont have that starting and stopping we have now. We need to achieve a better flow and if we get that, there will be less frustration among the drivers."
Adjusting the lights to the same time clock wouldnt be a new concept for this area. All local jurisdictions synchronize their signals every year on July 4 so commuters can get out of the city more easily after the fireworks display, Mr. Hagan said.
Less frustration for drivers seems to be the goal these days among Maryland and Virginia state and county transportation officials, who say they are working to develop a system where all traffic signals in their jurisdictions would follow the same timing cycle.
But The Washington Times, through a yearlong analysis of the metropolitan area rush hours, found that not all gridlock should be blamed on poorly synchronized equipment.
Some surprises uncovered along the way:
* Traffic engineers have discovered a formula to explain why so few cars make it through a green light during rush hour. It is called "the 4-3-2-2-2 rule," meaning: It takes four seconds for the rear bumper of the first car in line to make it through the light — and that is only if the lead driver is alert and not making a cell-phone call or applying makeup when the light changes. The second car makes it through in three seconds, and all the others that follow, two seconds.
That means five cars have eaten up 13 of the 60 seconds usually allotted to the green cycle.
* The bulk of the rush-hour traffic jams in the region are self-inflicted, man-made events that begin deep in the suburbs, two to five miles from the nearest of 27 stop-and-go feeder highways in Maryland and Virginia. Drivers are confronted with up to 35 traffic lights before they reach their goal lines. On the nine superhighways that lead to the District, most lights are set at unrealistic intervals. First come the lights on small, local roads that link commuters to still more traffic lights on major feeder routes such as 1, 28, 29, and 50 in both states.
* The purpose of the nine multimillion-dollar superhighways is defeated 12 to 15 miles from the city, where the average speed drops from 60 mph to 25 mph in most areas by 8 a.m.
Negotiating traffic signals should be simple. Stop at red lights. Go on green lights.
Yet it isnt because each jurisdiction has been timing traffic lights differently because of outdated technology, leaving commuters, who travel through several counties and cities, sitting in traffic for hours.
"Sometimes I wish I had a helicopter that could take me to work and back," said Andrea McDonough, a computer specialist from Fairfax who travels to Bethesda every day. "Something has got to be done, and I dont think more roads are the answer either."
Mrs. McDonough is not the only one who dreams of Walter Mitty solutions to rush-hour rage. Motorists interviewed have pictured outfitting their cars with giant "Star Wars" stilts so they could wade over the tops of other cars, or with huge battering rams that would push traffic aside.
Much of the anger, the Times has learned, subsides when traffic is at a standstill. Old Washington area hands have learned to use that time to put their brains in idle, too, police said.
"Sitting in gridlock doesnt really trouble commuters anymore," Mr. McGuirk said. "What does trouble most commuters is when their traffic patterns get disrupted either by construction or by an accident. Loss of a lane can really hurt here."
One Northern Virginia survey found most city street gridlock was caused by drivers blocking main intersections for at least half of the traffic-light cycles during rush hour.
It is a problem especially during the evening rush hour when people are anxious to get home. Alexandria police Lt. Donald Hayes believes people have just become exhausted. "Their main concern is not driving anymore," he said.
Three different companies supply three different kinds of lights to the counties and cities in the region. Most of the lights bought havent changed in years, either in appearance or added features, transportation engineers have said.
"Many systems in the past werent capable of communicating with each other," Mr. Hagan said. "Many of them had their own clocks so there was no way you could time them all the same."
But thanks to new clocks and signal heads, neighboring jurisdictions are finding ways to speed up the commute. In Maryland, officials are adjusting traffic signals throughout the state so each light runs on the same second cycle.
For example, the state recently finished synchronizing 38 lights along U.S. Route 1 in Beltsville, College Park and Hyattsville, and another 26 signals along Maryland Route 202 from White House Road to Maryland Route 450, said Suzanne Bond, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.
"Its worked pretty well so far to keep traffic moving," Miss Bond said.
Officials in Virginia have similar projects under way. In Northern Virginia, separate networks were created for each of the heavily traveled intersections where the signals didnt work in sync and cycle lengths were matched with those in neighboring jurisdictions.
So far, officials have adjusted lights among Fairfax County and Fairfax City, Herndon, Vienna and Alexandria. They are currently working on synchronizing signals among Fairfax County and Falls Church and Arlington, and Prince William County and Manassas and Manassas Park.
They also are redefining the timing cycles of signals — adding either more green or red time — in some neighborhoods. The intersection of Route 50 and Rugby Road that used to have 43 seconds of green time, now has 75 seconds of green time.
The crusade of traffic engineers nationwide and abroad has led to the use of red lights that pulse, so they can be distinguished from a long set of lights on the horizon.
It also has led to some unique ideas.
In one city, engineers put up a traffic light to solve a difficult left-hand diagonal turn off a main road, but motorists just ignored the signal. Jimmy Johnson of Marylands Econolite — a major maker of traffic lights — would not disclose the name of the city because Econolite still does business with it.
The engineers tried a flashing red arrow and a flashing yellow arrow, but neither got the attention of drivers. Finally, they tried a flashing green arrow and it worked. Engineers think the signal was so unique that it stood out, and got drivers attention.
One of the biggest inefficiencies in driving is the time it takes for a column of cars to accelerate after a traffic signal turns green.
Mr. Johnson says the 4-3-2-2-2 rule only works if drivers are not reading the paper, fiddling with the radio station or daydreaming when the light changes from red to green. But if the drivers were warned the light was about to turn green, the first car could be in the intersection faster, and every driver behind him could also begin to accelerate.
Europe is ahead of the game.
Signals in Warsaw, for example, go from green to yellow to red to yellow and red at the same time — a combination that gives drivers an extra wake-up call that the light is about to turn green. Its become a cheat sheet for drivers, who begin to rev their cars up when they see the yellow-red combination. By the time the light is green, the first car in line usually is already in the intersection.
The system stems from the days when roads were shared by automobiles and horses — the yellow-red gave horse riders and team drivers time to get their horses going. Later, it alerted drivers with manual transmissions to put their cars into gear.
But American traffic engineers balk at the idea.
Given the amount of red-light running, they fear the yellow-red light will encourage drivers to be in the intersection sooner, and there are certain to be more accidents.
For the brains at the signal-design shops, the mantra is that the less the drivers know, the better. Thats why the same green-yellow-red light has been in use so long, and appears to be the only option being considered.
Even as pedestrian-crossing signals improve — new ones in Old Town Alexandria, now tell pedestrians exactly how many seconds they have to cross a street — traffic signals stay the same.
The reason is if a driver knows he has 10 seconds before a light turns, he will make sure he beats the light — even if it means speeding up.


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