Imagine an Apple Watch app (Green Pace) that used haptic feedback to pace your walk so you made the “Walk” signal at every traffic light. It would tap faster if walking faster let you make the signal, it would tap slower if you would hit a “Don’t walk” signal anyway. This could save pedestrians perhaps 20% the time wasted standing on corners and breathing in fumes on each walk trip. What’s required for this?
Well, obviously a watch with haptic feedback. Such already exists.
More importantly, we would need a real-time advance feed of when traffic signal phases changed, and their control plan. This is more difficult, since so many signals are “adaptive” to real time traffic. Many however are fixed time and amenable to this. There are a few examples, but they are newsworthy, not widespread. This should be standardized.
We would also need some API that would read the standardized signal feeds and match them against a Directions/Map app, and GPS, on the watch.
So the most interesting thing here is that the simplest of these technologies (the traffic signal) is the last one to be implemented. We have satellites, we have computers on our wrists, we have wireless telecommunications, but we don’t know the timing of timed lightbulbs in most of the world.
NB: This traffic signal timing feed technology also has obvious applications for cars and trucks, which could speed up (potentially, subject to speed limits and prevailing traffic) or slow down (which is more interesting, as they can make a green wave by driving slower, and thus save energy and aggravation), or re-route, if they knew the green lights in advance.
There are some traffic signal feeds out there, but I don’t see standardization, I see proprietary standards. Some articles from a quick search. Mostly related to the company Connected Signals.
Traffic engineers have developed terminology to aid in communication
The ‘approach’ is the set of lanes that are coming into a particular intersection, from a given direction. So, there might be an eastbound approach of traffic that is moving in the easterly direction. A ‘cycle’ is the complete amount of time that it takes to go from a red light to a red light. We think of it as a clock. ‘Cycle length’ is the amount of time it takes to complete a cycle, measured in seconds. A ‘phase’ is part of a cycle that is allocated to a particular movement, which receives the right-of-way. There might be multiple movements that receive right-of-way simultaneously, as long as they are not conflicting. The northbound and southbound movements might both get the green light at the same time. They’re on the same phase, and they’re not conflicting.
“What do you do with right (left – in right hand drive countries) turns?” Do you give them a separate phase? Or do they share the phase? If they share the phase, then it becomes more complicated. There are many possible patterns, from which traffic engineers aim to select the ‘optimal,’ but that depends on the objectives and conditions.
There are ‘movements’. ‘Protected’ movements have right-of-way, and don’t have to yield to any other conflicting movements, opposing vehicles, or to pedestrians. The ‘permitted’ movement is most common for right turns (in left-hand drive countries like Australia), for instance when making a turn without a green arrow, the driver has the permission to make that movement, so long as it is safe, but is not protected by a red light in the conflicting direction. Left turns are also permitted if there are no conflicting pedestrians or bicyclists.
‘Lost time’ occurs at the start of the phase because the first car has to accelerate from a dead stop, which takes some time: drivers first perceive the green signal, then check to make sure the intersection is clear, and then accelerate from a stop. So the speed at which that first (and second, and third) car goes through the intersection is slower than subsequent vehicles. There is also lost time at the end of the phase as some drivers are reluctant to go through on an amber (yellow) signal. There is also an ‘all red’ phase in some places to make sure the intersection is fully cleared of vehicles and pedestrians.
In the second half of 2017, I supervised a first year undergraduate student Tingsen Xian on an independent student project to redesign the intersection of Broadway and City Road in Sydney.
At one corner of this intersection is Victoria Park (lower left) and the University of Sydney (just off site), at another is the Broadway Shopping Center. This intersection has a high pedestrian count, high bus count, reasonably high car count, is very wide (befitting the name “Broadway”), and has long delays, especially for pedestrians. The proposed alternative removes the free left turn and porkchop island on the southwest corner, gives more space to pedestrians, buses (red), and bicyclists (green), and less space to cars, and the signal retiming reduces total person delay by 1.5% (a lot for pedestrians, while increasing it somewhat for car users), and sends the right incentives. The revised layout is shown in the image.
You can download the full report with more graphics, tables, and yes equations here: broadway-city-road.
[Obviously there are simplifying assumptions in any engineering analysis, and limited measurements and time to conduct the study, but I think the results are better than official results which don’t consider pedestrian delay when timing intersections. It suggests professionals should be able to do a lot better than they have done here.]
We have long known in the transportation planning community that the use of trip generation for local area review, and ITE’s procedure for estimating trip generation is broken in any number of ways. Shoup’s Truth in Transportation Planning is a classic critique of the problems.
While we could (and perhaps should) throw the whole kit and caboodle into recycling, in practice trip generation methods will be with us decades from now (even as traditional work, shopping and driving disappear). So there is a small academic movement to make the methods better. The most recent issue of JTLU 8(1) has a special section on Trip Generation, including several papers about how to adjust and improve ITE’s Trip Generation methods based on better data.
Part of the problem is that ITE is functionally a for-profit organization, and makes bank on selling the Trip Generation Manual and associated software (recognizing the fact that use of ITE Trip Generation rates is ensconced in law and regulation).
What has long been needed is an open source database of trip generation studies so that better fits to actual site conditions can be used in analysis. I recall in my youth some engineers in Montgomery County, Maryland trying to set something up, but this was well before the world wide web made that easy.
Fortunately that day is upon us. Mike Spack and company have set up TripGeneration.org, which is populated with open access trip generation studies (licensed under a Creative Commons license), and for which they hope to grow the data set. This is new, and I assume as it grows the data will get better and better, as will the methods for inputting and extracting data. Kudos to Mike, Nate, and others at Spack Consulting for getting this going. I look forward to seeing where this goes, as Big Data and new sensors make data collection increasingly ubiquitous.
Suppose you have a train moving along (parallel to) an East-West (EW) signalized arterial.
Case 1: If the signals are pre-timed, and the timings are known in advance, the train should never have to stop for the signals (aside from emergency signal pre-emptions and other edge cases). Instead, the train should be able to adjust its speed so that it doesn’t have to stop. It might go at an average speed of say 10, 20, 30, or 40 MPH in order to ensure it hits a green light or better a green wave from whenever it departs a station. The train driver can be apprised of the optimal time to leave the previous (upstream) station, and the speed to travel to hit “green” lights.
Green waves have been around since the 1920s (See Henry Barnes’s autobiography: The Man with the Red and Green Eyes. Dutton. 1965. OCLC522406). Static signs to tell travelers the speed of the green wave has been in standard use in some places (e.g. Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC) for almost as long. Dynamic real-time signs which tell travelers what speed to adjust to to make the green wave has been recently patented and tested in simulation for automobiles: Always Green Traffic Control. The time is ripe for some carefully controlled field experimentation.
Still, pre-timing with information certainly doesn’t guarantee the fastest speed possible for the train, but it does guarantee no stops except at stations, which is good for a variety of reasons, including both travel time (avoid acceleration/deceleration loss), traveler comfort, energy use, and train wear and tear.
Case 2: If the signals are actuated, that is, their phase and perhaps cycle timings depend on traffic levels, and traffic “actuates” the signal, usually through an in-ground loop detector, transit signal priority from a fixed upstream distance should be sufficient to ensure the train doesn’t stop at a “red” light. The traffic light controller would know that a train was coming, and either keep the lights in the direction of the train green (if they are green), or change them to green and hold them, if it is currently red and the green is coming up. The train, knowing when the green will be on, should be able to adjust its speed (faster or slower) to make the green without stopping.
The distance that trains can currently notify a downstream signal controller is when they depart the upstream station, which is up to 1/2 mile or so (the spacing between stations). 1/2 mile at 30 mph takes 1 minute. With a cycle time of 2 minutes, and at least half the green time (1 minute) for the signalized arterial, a green can be guaranteed. If the light is currently red, it will be green within a minute. If it is currently green, it can be kept green for up to a minute. The worst case is it was just about to turn red and instead the green is extended for an additional minute. Alternatively, if it is currently green, a shorter than usual red phase can be inserted to clear the crossing traffic, before the light is turned back to green.
For traffic signals less than 1/2 mile downstream (say 1/4 mile) the warning time is only 30 seconds at 30 MPH. The same logic applies, but it is potentially more problematic as there is less lead time to adjust the timings, so the phase shortenings might be more severe. On the other hand, if more than 50% of the green time goes to the EW movement (say 75%) you aren’t really any worse off.
At 1/10 of a mile the warning time is less, but train departure from the station should be able to be coordinated with the light directly.
Case 3: But let’s say your traffic engineers are incapable of making this work. Should the train and its passengers suffer? This is where traffic signal pre-emption comes in. Most widely used for emergency vehicles, this potentially changes the sequence of phases, so maybe a phase is dropped (it doesn’t occur within the cycle, or within the usual place in the cycle).
This system does ensure that the vehicle requesting the pre-emption gets a green light as quickly as possible (safely turning the conflicting movements to a red phase) and thus can drive at as high a speed as possible. While trains should not need to stop at traffic lights with priority and speed adjustments, with pre-emption, they neither need to stop nor adjust their speed.
What could go wrong?
Pedestrians. Thus far we have been talking about a system with cars and trains. Pedestrians too can actuate signals, though “beg buttons“. These may function similar to vehicle actuators, in telling the traffic signal there is someone who wants to cross. The difficulty for priority or pre-emption is that a pedestrian phase may need to be longer since pedestrians take longer to cross the street than a vehicle does, especially if the street is very wide. So a pedestrian actuator may also extend the green time, in addition to calling for green time. This makes it more difficult to quickly change lights from red to green, since for safety reasons you can’t strand a pedestrian. This makes the ability to adjust train speeds in concert with the traffic signals more important.
Emergency vehicles. Emergency vehicle on emergency vehicle crashes are a known problem, and pre-emption may make it worse as firetrucks approaching a scene from two directions may both demand a green light, but only one gets it. The driver of one vehicle, not realizing he didn’t get the green (especially if he had the green as he was approaching), fails to yield. There are solutions to these problems.
Any of this will likely lead to additional delays for conflicting vehicle movements (cars making left turns or North-South traffic crossing our East-West arterial). With priority, this may even lead to extra delay for some vehicles on the parallel arterial who have been given a short green so the conflicting traffic can also get a short green before the EW arterial returns to green.
However the train usually has more people on it than are queued up at the other directions, so total *person* delay will generally be reduced.
For a variety of reasons, delay is bad (unless your goal is punishing drivers and air-breathers), we want to minimize total person time (or weighted total person time – recognizing long weights are more onerous than short weights) in the system (because time is money), and minimize pollution outcomes as well.
In short, the Green Line not getting green lights on University Avenue is a solvable problem. It should have been solved already. It eventually will be solved.
In the spirit of Open Access Week, here’s an interesting article from an open access journal – The Journal of Transport and Land Use. Go check it out and peruse the articles. No need to depend on your institution’s sibscription because it’s free to the public! (Thanks open access!)
This paper presents a methodology to investigate the link between bicycle activity and built environment, road and transit network characteristics, and bicycle facilities while also accounting for spatial autocorrelation between intersections. The methodology includes the normalization of manual cyclist counts to average seasonal daily volumes (ASDV), taking into account temporal variations and using hourly, daily, and monthly expansion factors obtained from automatic bicycle count data. To correct for weather conditions, two approaches were used. In the first approach, a relative weather ridership model was generated using the automatic bicycle count and weather data. In the second approach, weather variables were introduced directly into the model. For each approach, the effects of built environment, road and transit characteristics, and bicycle facilities on cyclist volumes were determined. It was found that employment, schools, metro stations, bus stops, parks, land mix, mean income, bicycle facility type (bicycle lanes and cycle tracks), length of bicycle facilities, average street length, and presence of parking entrances were associated with bicycle activity. From these, it was found that the main factors associated with bicycle activity were land-use mix, cycle track presence, and employment density. For instance, intersections with cycle tracks have on average 61 percent more cyclists than intersections without. An increase of 10 percent in land-use mix or employment density would cause an increase of 8 percent or 5.3 percent, respectively, in bicycle flows. The methods and results proposed in this research are helpful for planning bicycle facilities and analyzing cyclist safety. Limitations and future work are discussed at the end of this paper.
“City traffic can sometimes move faster when a road is closed. A football team can sometimes play better without its best player. The two are linked. Anarchy, say Brian Skinner and Brad Carlin, is freedom to be counterproductive.”
[I am not sure I would interpret I-35W as a Braess’s paradox example, strictly speaking it fails the test, but its advantages were a lot less than might have been thought, and certainly many people were worse off after it opened, if not overall. The general analogy to sports is interesting though.]
I was briefly in New York yesterday. By briefly I mean I left Minneapolis when it was daylight, and returned and it was still daylight. This is of course much easier to accomplish when you are near the summer solstice, but still it suggests the technical feasibility, though definitely not the desirability, of cross-continental commutes.
On the Minneapolis side, things went very smoothly. I left my house at 5:45 AM, caught the bus at 5:53, was at the LRT by 6:00, caught the ~6:03 LRT to the airport and was there by 6:20. Security was quick, the weather was good, the 8:05 flight was on-time.
Some comments on transportation in America’s largest city.
For a city with so many airline passengers, and presumably airline profits, some of the airport terminals (JFK Terminal 2) are still quite dumpy (Yes there is a plan to fix this). One would think that if there were competitive owners of each different airport (and each terminal), they would have to compete for customers (both passengers and airlines) by differentiating quality (presumably upwards). Though there has been some terminal modernization, New York is far behind the rest of western (and eastern) civilization in this arena.
Second, there is not good transit access from the airports to the City. New York, with the US’s largest subway system has had more than 50 years since the dawn of the jet age to connect its airports to its transit system successfully, and seems to have failed to avail itself. (I am aware of JFK’s AirTrain, it seems to require a separate charge from the transit system and a transfer, surely someone could figure out how to bundle that. It also required taking the subway with 33 stops to my Midtown destination). This is not an unknown problem, and solutions are proposed for LaGuardia (via Bus, apparently the train proposal was shelved) and JFK (at about $10B, which seems excessive, but this is NYC).
At any rate, someone else was paying for my surface transportation, so I was in a car. (Which I realize makes me part of the problem, not the solution, but also gives me the perspective of enlightened commentators such as Dorothy Rabinowitz. Yet I did not notice any problems with CitiBikes on my brief stay. There were some bicycles darting in and out of traffic, but that was because cars were not moving and bikes could). On the way in I also got to hear the political philosophy of my driver (a well-educated Russian immigrant from over 30 years ago), who is probably best described as a Peter King Republican, which probably would not have happened on a subway train. The driver seemed to be of the belief that bus lanes were a bad idea because they delayed cars, and in general was opposed to the Bloomberg administration. He also thought most of the works were badly managed and timed poorly (this I agree with) so the Unions could flex their power, and that trucks should only enter the city at night. Of course where you stand depend on where you sit.
Third, New York has far more street traffic congestion than it should. Of course it is crowded, and it probably shouldn’t build more highways, but it doesn’t manage scarce roadspace the way a well-managed city would.
On the way in to the city, one of the lanes on the Queens Midtown Expressway was blocked so someone (1 person) could sweep the shoulder, with a broom, in the middle of the day. To be charitable, maybe there was recent broken glass that required cleaning, but this seemed far more substantial cleaning than the debris from a fender-bender. The queues formed by the lane closure were several miles in length.
Why is on-street parking permitted in the middle of the day on both sides of the street on major congested streets (37th Street)? This seems to be more than loading/unloading and more than temporary construction crews.
And why is don’t block the box not enforced. This would seem a perfect opportunity to use red light running cameras to ticket people who block cross-traffic on the red light.
This is even before considering what economists normally think about when they say pricing, some form of congestion charge, which has been proposed and not implemented because the winners could not bring themselves to pay off the losers.
Fourth, why is there congestion at the airport on a clear day with as perfect weather as one could ask for? Leaving LaGuardia, we boarded the plane on-time and the plane was 17th for take-off with about 40 minutes of ground wait. We landed “on time”, meaning the airline (Delta) built in 45 minutes of ground delay into the schedule to ensure “on time” arrivals. If the schedule is such that the same flights are repeated daily (an approximation), then our plane would take off at the same time every day regardless (unless it was worse due to weather). Which means, we could have been scheduled a half-hour later and not waited in the plane on the ground. This is a simple coordination problem that could be solved with reservation pricing. I suspect this is a problem because there are competing airlines which want to offer the same departure time (~6:45 pm), but a monopoly airport. In a different airport a dominant (hub) airline might internalize the delay costs. See Daniel (1995) on Congestion Pricing and Capacity of Large Hub Airports: A Bottleneck Model with Stochastic Queues.
“Two suggestions bordered on the Swiftian: One was a modest proposal to remove all traffic control from the existing intersection. “When those signals are out, that intersection functions fairly well,” stated one man.”
I was “one man”.
The official alternatives are available here: Project website
My letter (sent to the team and local public officials) clarifying what I am thinking about, which I sent to the project team is below:
Thank you for hosting the public hearing on the Franklin Ave/27th Street/East River Road intersection. I mentioned the meeting you should consider a shared-space concept (including perhaps a simple roundabout, but without all of the complex signage, separation, etc.) , the ideas I have in mind are illustrated here: http://www.shared-space.org/
The advantage is that it could cost much less, and could be easily tested (put some covers on the signals, take down the signs, and put up some warning signs telling people upstream they are approaching a new environment, without requiring full reconstruction.
A video showing some of the ideas is here:
(especially at 5:00 into the second video)
I recognize the idea may appear radical to traditional engineering practice, but I think it is worth giving full consideration to, especially on a site like this with no obvious inexpensive solution, with a mix of commuter and parkway traffic, bicycles, and pedestrians, a desire to minimize land taking, and a desire to calm traffic.
Please let me know if you have any questions.