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June 1, 2009

Reader bugged by city's poor traffic light timing

Alfred Loizeaux is a man on a mission when it comes to the city's stoplights. I thought his email was worth sharing.

 Henry Barnes came to Baltimore in 1953 for a one-month job as consultant traffic engineer and was hired by Mayor Thomas D’Alessandro, Jr. as Traffic Commissioner. Barnes installed in Baltimore, a traffic-control computer that was, in 1957, the largest of its kind in the world. (Wikepedia) His major improvements were one-way streets and synchronized traffic lights. That was the 50's but the traffic light sync system has been malfunctioning for decades.

 In that regard: Stephen Kiehl, Baltimore Sun transportation reporter answers readers' questions on traffic bottlenecks in the area on April 27, 2004

 Kiehl: I know your pain. It often takes me 10 minutes or more to get up President Street from Little Italy to where I-83 begins. Part of the problem seems to be the generally terrible signal timing. The city transportation department is in the midst of a several-years project that will replace all the signal boxes and upgrade the city's signal system, allowing for greater coordination. That should help. And it should be done in a couple years.

 A "couple" is two. Two and a half years later. Nov 20, 2006 the wrote:

Along these lines, Alexander writes: “It’s been my conclusion, after years of driving around Baltimore, that: (1) fully 40 percent of Baltimore’s traffic lights could be removed with no discernible negative effect on traffic, save for irate elderly pedestrians who feel a need to cross at a long light — and most of those have died off anyway, replaced by people who ignore traffic signals and persist in stepping in front of my car just as I get a green light; and (2) the $10 million system to synchronize/streamline Baltimore’s traffic light system is an utter rip-off, with no discernible change to Baltimore traffic. (If anything, the lights have been getting worse, not better.) I want a refund of my share.”

Another year and a half later, WJZ's Pat Warren reported on May 5, 2008 The cure for the rush hour headache may have arrived. Baltimore's transportation experts unveiled a system designed to better synchronize downtown traffic. Pat Warren reports it's an improvement with the potential to benefit everyone behind the wheel. There's a description used for downtown Baltimore traffic, drive-a-block and stop, which leaves plenty of time to talk to drivers at red lights. "It's very hectic," said one driver. "It's pretty bad...can't really get anywhere," said another driver. "When I was city council president, the number one complaint on Wednesday morning was, what the heck is wrong with these lights," said Mayor Sheila Dixon.

The timing of traffic lights is a familiar irritant to drivers throughout the city. On Monday, Congressman Elijah Cummings, a senior member of the House Transportation Committee, joined Mayor Dixon and state and local transportation officials to open Baltimore's new Transportation Center. The 24-7 computer center will give controllers the power to synchronize traffic signals as volume, traffic patterns and special situations demand. It's designed to monitor traffic throughout the city, and for now the focus is on downtown. According to Congressman Cummings, more than $18 million in federal funds went into the center in addition to the city-state partnership.

 Yet another year has passed. Still no improvement. When is this thing going on-line? The traffic light system is a failure! I questioned the "Supervisor of Traffic Lights" to complain and he responded very politely with no discernable effect. He claimed he had no jurisdiction over timing of traffic lights (!?) and directed my concerns to the "Director of Traffic Lights" who ignored both (the supervisor's) and my e-mails.

Perhaps you can discover what is wrong.

Al, I'll see what I  can find out.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 2:37 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: On the roads


Coming down Fayette Street toward President Street can be a nightmare during non-rush hours. Often times I'll get stopped at every...single...traffic light.

Just another piece of evidence of why Baltimore is a decade behind other metropolitan areas in seemingly all aspects of city life..besides crime

I find the City's traffic signaling system to be extremely efficient overall, President St aside, a boon to suburb-downtown motoring communters, and far superior to the traffic systems in the surrounding counties and Washington, DC in delivering cars in and out of the city as quickly as possible. I don't think it can be made much more efficient. If we experience gridlock under such conditions, I think no amount of tinkering with the signals will do. We'll simply have to finder a better way to deliver people to their destinations without using the private motor coach....

Nate Payer
The views expressed here are my own.

I think Nate is mistaken as someone who regularly commutes through downtown to get from my place of employment to home in the city I notice the poor timing of lights pretty much daily.

Also if the light timing is so wonderful (why) does the city still deploy traffic officers to direct traffic (often VERY poorly) during rush hour?

Here's a great example of an intersection that fails daily b/c of bad light timing: Eutaw at MLK. Because of poor light timing (at Howard Street) and selfish drivers, MLK traffic regularly blocks the intersection Northbound on Eutaw when the light changes green.

Maybe teh city should deploy a traffic office here occasionally to ticket drivers blocking the intersection. Instead of standing worthlessly at Conway & Light.

Before they implement this system, the city should reclassify the city's road system by determining what kind of traffic it handles in TODAY's conditions. Classify the roads by: 1) thru traffic - city to county, 2) city traffic - cross town & north/south, 3) city traffic - neighborhood to neighborhood and 4) neighborhood traffic. This would allow the city to remove probably 25% of the traffic lights and make sure the road design fits its use. In other words, start over.

I agree that the poor performance of the traffic enforcement officers is rendering their existence useless. When there is occasionally an officer at the intersection of South and Lombard in the afternoon, they more often then not are just directing the traffic to obey the traffic light. Rarely do I see an officer actually observe the traffic at the intersection and direct drivers in opposition to the lights. I understand that a primary purpose is to prevent drivers from "blocking the box", but when there's no one coming north on South Street, why can't I go through the intersection!

Actually, a better question would probably be to wonder why that ONE block on South Street is a two-way anyway, other than to bring business into the Renaissance garage, but I digress.

Back on topic, better training for the traffic enforcement officers would definitely be an intermediate, cheap solution while waiting on a long-term fix on the syncronization, in my opinion.

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.

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