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Oct 11, 2023

Traffic lights represent democracy at work

Do you like driving on the busy highway that runs through your town? Do you wonder, like me, if anyone is in charge of making sure traffic runs smoothly? Is there any rhyme or reason for how our traffic lights work to help solve traffic problems?

I was fortunate to sit down with two experienced pros to ask about these traffic light questions and more: Fred Schneider, who runs roads and drainage in Lake County, and Jay Jarvis, who runs roads and drainage in Polk County. Thanks, Jay and Fred, for the big assist. I had questions, they had answers.

What I didn’t understand is that traffic lights represent democracy at work. The goal of the traffic light is to treat everyone relatively the same no matter if you are on the main road or on the smaller crossroads.

Here’s what I originally thought. Technology to monitor traffic lights has been around for a long time. Bill Gates’ first company, before Microsoft, was Traf-O-Data, which analyzed traffic data and adjusted traffic lights. Fifty years later, why can’t we do something simple like get all the lights on our busy roads synchronized so the traffic flows instead of stopping all the time at almost every intersection?

What I got wrong was that I thought traffic lights were all about people on the busy highway. How do we get to where we need to go with a minimum of stoppage at traffic lights? No, traffic lights are actually installed because of all the people on the side streets trying to get on or off the highway.

Roads and traffic lights represent democracy. What is fair to people on the cross streets? Should they wait five minutes just so the drivers on the busy road don’t have to stop at a traffic light?

Plus, these side streets have different traffic loads from each other and require different cycle times for their lights. It could take up to three minutes to cycle through one intersection if the side street is also a busy road. It could take one minute on a less busy road. Different cycle times on the crossroads make it hard to synchronize with other intersections.

It is also hard to synchronize the traffic lights, because once there is half a mile between traffic lights, there is no “platoon” of cars moving together. People drive at fast speeds but also at slow speeds. The synchronization of lights just does not work well beyond half a mile.

Then, of course, we have humans driving cars. People slow down and speed up, cutting in front of one another, and cars rip across two lanes of traffic, all of which causes everyone to put on their brakes. In other words, we humans, not traffic lights, cause much of the traffic jams on these roads. They can’t build traffic light algorithms smart enough to undo all the chaos that humans cause.

There was a lot to my roads and intersection education with these two smart gentlemen. I have more questions. Are more lanes on our busy highways the answer or are roundabouts the answers to our traffic issues? Don’t worry, they have answers.

Readers, what do you think? Share your thoughts.

David Dunn-Rankin is CEO of D-R Media, which owns the Triangle News Leader and Clermont News Leader, as well as newspapers in Highlands, Polk and Sumter counties.

Traffic lights represent democracy at work