Who’s ready for Atlanta’s traffic lights to be synced?

It’ll cost the city a cool $35 million to do so


Atlanta has a traffic-light problem. If you’ve driven through much of the city, you’ve encountered this first hand. Motorists can make it past one green light, only to be stopped by another two red lights. Cruising through the city, on many occasions, can be an extremely frustrating experience.

The city wants to change that. As part of its upcoming $250 million infrastructure bond package, it currently plans to spend more than $35 million — the final figure and list of projects is still being approved — to sync traffic signals and replace others across the city. Though traffic engineers have updated signals in some parts of Atlanta, lights haven’t been synchronized on a citywide level in a long, long time. According to at least one report, we’re talking the 1970s.

More than one-third of the city’s intersections with traffic signals — about 350 out of 960, the mayor’s office says — has received upgrades. Some of those improvements have occurred thanks to a Georgia Department of Transportation grant program. Mayor Kasim Reed spokeswoman Jenna Garland tells CL the city could complete the work needed to sync up all intersections if voters approve the bond package on St. Patrick’s Day.

“It would have a very big impact citywide,” Garland says. “Most people who drive around have sat around in traffic. ... Traffic light synchronization hasn’t happened on the level that it needs to.”

According to the city’s public works department, more than $17 million would be used to lay down fiber, install wireless broadband routers, and purchase and install software needed to connect the lights to the city’s Traffic Control Center. Those upgrades would allow the city to automate existing traffic signals and, when necessary, make real-time adjustments to traffic signals depending on the number of motorists passing through a particular part of the city.

An additional $18 million would be spent on upgrading current traffic signals by converting them to energy efficient LED lights and installing signal controllers that can transmit and receive information. Garland says that “deferred maintenance” that includes the replacement of old wiring and junction boxes would also take place. Some cash could also be used to upgrade intersections with protected turn lanes, she says.

Sally Flocks, president and CEO of pedestrian advocacy group PEDS, doesn’t have a problem with traffic synchronization if it’s properly done. The city should keep two things in mind when aligning its green and red lights, she says. First, it should be done in a way that discourages speeding.

“A lot depends on how they do it,” Flocks tells CL. “Synchronizing lights is good. Nobody likes sitting at red lights at every intersection. But if motorists keep getting greens through ‘optimization,’ they’re going to be running through it. It can be improved for motorists, but worse for pedestrians.”

According to Flocks, lights should not be synced to allow motorists to travel 50 miles per hour down Courtland Street, but at a slower speed. Wait times at crosswalks should also be reduced during the overall synchronization process too, she says.

Michael Hunter, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, tells CL that traffic signal syncing can improve quality of life for residents through reducing travel times, stops, and delays. But he says it’s important to consider all modes of transportation — be it driving a car, riding a streetcar, pedaling on a bike, or walking on foot — in the process. That particularly includes letting lights stay green long enough for pedestrians to cross streets and coordinating signals in a way that discourages speeding.

In addition, Hunter says that major transportation projects such as traffic signal synchronization often lack enough cash in their budgets to keep the road investments in working shape. He says more local government officials, including those in Atlanta, given the proposed $250 million infrastructure investment, should only build what they can afford to maintain.

“If you’re going to pay for the infrastructure, you need to have a way to maintain it,” he says. “Construction isn’t the big challenge. The overlooked part is maintaining it.”

To see the full list of projects included in the city’s upcoming infrastructure bond package, visit infrastructuremap.org.