Could the Triangle be a good fit for ‘smart’ traffic lights to reduce travel times?


RALEIGH, NC (WNCN) — It’s one of the key components on our roads that helps keep us both safe and moving—we’re talking about the traffic signal.

However, those signals can cause frustration when conditions change and the traffic lights aren’t programed to adjust with those changes.

There is a new technology that can adjust those signals in real time to keep traffic, as well as transit and emergency vehicles moving without big jam-ups, but is it right for North Carolina?

When it comes to traffic signals, there are lot of factors involved. You have to look at the flow of vehicles, then you have to time that flow.

You also must figure out when each light should stay red or green and for how long. Finally it needs to be determined which times of day those light cycles need to change to keep the traffic moving during rush hours or slack travel times.

That may be fine for a few signals in a given area, but to keep traffic moving on a regional basis, some experts say you need to take a broader view—not just a few city blocks but the entire metropolitan area.

Do you ever get the feeling you are going nowhere fast? A lot of drivers in the Triangle have that frustration.

“I just came up from Fuquay and it was a two and a half hour round trip just with all the lights and traffic chokepoints,” said driver Ronnie Higman.

Here in North Carolina, the NCDOT oversees 19 centralized signal systems in our municipalities. (Steve Sbraccia/CBS 17)

With the population exploding in the Triangle, we can’t keep adding more and more roads—so we have to make the ones we have more efficient.

“If we can get the infrastructure lined up to moving everybody, then it automatically opens up the reduction of emissions, provides better fuel economy and because we are moving again, it will reduce time at intersections,” said Tim Menard, the CEO and Founder of LYT, a firm that uses artificial intelligence to control traffic signals.

The California-based company has come up with a real-time based system that coordinates traffic signals allowing busses, cars and emergency vehicles to keep on moving—no matter how the traffic patterns deviate because of congestion.

Compare that to the current way of doing things in this state.

If the timing of a traffic signal needs to be changed, it requires planning and labor.

Right now, traffic lights in North Carolina are reprogrammed manually at a cost of $5,000 per signal as part of an upgrade program by the NCDOT to adjust for periodic changes in traffic patterns and volume.

“We retime 300-to 400 signals every year with that program,” said NCDOT Signals Management Engineer Matt Carlisle.

For those who suffer through light cycle after light cycle waiting to get through an intersection, that periodic re-timing seems inefficient.

Driver Phillip Duffield told CBS 17 he would like to see a system where they could control traffic lights in real-time so you could get through traffic without being congested.

“That would be nice,” he said.

Consumer investigator Steve Sbraccia asked the CEO of LYT if the company’s artificial intelligence system is in operation anywhere or is it still an experimental concept.

Menard said, “This is working in a couple of cities on the west coast.”

Here’s how it operates: The system takes data from transit dispatchers, cellphones, navigation programs, the weather service, emergency responders, and scores of other relevant data sources and makes real time decisions.

It then funnels those decisions back down to the correct traffic signals on the street to co-ordinate the smooth transit of vehicles.

“We have been able to apply this technology and reduce travel time by 20 percent,” Menard said.

Here in North Carolina, the NCDOT oversees 19 centralized signal systems in our municipalities.

For example, along the US 70 and 401 corridor between Raleigh and Garner — there are two separate controlling systems.

Raleigh controls the signals in the city, and when you pass from Raleigh to Garner, NCDOT controls the signals.

As the population in this state grows with the influx of thousands of new residents, NCDOT plans to make more changes to its traffic signal systems to meet that demand. (CBS 17/Steve Sbraccia)

Using that as an example, CBS 17 asked Carlisle if it is better to try a whole regional approach to traffic signal timing as opposed to individual signal centers.

“It’s dependent on the area and corridors,” said Carlisle.

NCDOT believes that corridor approach works better than the LYT regional system because the traffic in the Raleigh area may have nothing to do with the traffic in Durham—or Chapel Hill, for example.

As the population in this state grows with the influx of thousands of new residents, NCDOT plans to make more changes to its traffic signal systems to meet that demand.

“Over the next seven years we are going to be upgrading 5,000 signals across the state to utilize new local, central software and connect it back to our statewide system,” said Carlisle.

Carlisle believes North Carolina is now among the top third of states with good traffic signal systems.

However, the creators of the LYT artificial intelligence system say it goes far beyond just traffic signals and can meet long-term future demands as automobiles become autonomous.

They say their system is adaptable to self-driving automobiles when that technology comes down the road.

Right now, NCDOT has no immediate plans to install real-time traffic signal control systems in North Carolina that would change traffic lights based on current traffic conditions.

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