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October 14, 2010

Citizen tells mayor: Get lights synchronized

Benjamin I. Feldman, a self-described "concerned Baltimorean" from Homeland, believes the traffic lights in the city are perpetually out of sychronization and wrote Mayor Stephanie Rawllings-Blake with his concerns:

Dear Mayor Rawlings-Blake:

I write to ask your assistance to improve an aspect of life in our city.  Over the last several years, our traffic lights have become unsynchronized.  This is especially apparent when traveling on one-way streets that in past flowed easily.  At present Charles St, St Paul St, Calvert St, and Park Ave—to cite a few—have become completely hosed.  A light turns green, and one moves a block for the next light to immediately turn red.

This situation is made worse by bad timing at intersections.  For example, minor cross streets, that might carry little or no traffic, will hold the green for a long time while the major thoroughfare is blocked.  For example, this morning I traveled downtown at 6:00 am, when traffic should have flowed well.  I only have a drive of 7 miles, but even at that hour, it took 30 minutes because I went from red light to red light.  Traveling south on Charles Street, the light for the entry to Mary our Queen and then for entry to Friends School, both favored the cross street for many minutes even though not a single car used the cross street.  Those two lights alone consumed five minutes of the drive.  While it is true that at specific hours of the day or week, these intersections are active, the activity is specifically limited; it is not 24/7.

Other timing issues are deplorable.  If one travels west on Northern Parkway, the light at Falls Road is timed to favor eastbound travel.  The problem is with the timing for the left turn lane.  On any morning or afternoon, it takes at least five cycles of the light for westbound traffic to clear the light.

You are too young to remember that the famous “Barnes Dance” was developed in Baltimore, when our then-director of traffic pioneered the scheme for using one-way streets to allow traffic to flow smoothly.  Until recently, one could begin at the southernmost foot of Calvert Street and drive all the way to Guilford without stopping once; one only needed to drive at correct speed to maintain the synchronicity.  If one missed one light, one could immediately recycle into the flow.  Not now, not early or late.

In my present circumstance, I work for an hourly wage.  The hours I spend burning fuel at red lights do not translate into income for me or taxes for the city.  Only the oil companies benefit. 

Toward the end of Mayor Dixon’s tenure, the Sun reported that Baltimore had procured a new system to order our traffic flow.  Clearly this office has not been staffed or has not been staffed well.  The easiest way for you to confirm this is to drive around some on your own. 

Good traffic flow in a city is like healthy blood flow in a body.  The city is a living organic whole.  They way things are at present can be improved with the application of some intelligence and talent. 

I respectfully ask that you consider raising this issue with the appropriate members of your cabinet.


Benjamin I. Feldman


Feldman's concerns  are well-expressed and deserve a response from the city. But one caveat to keep in mind is that nobody who gets a green  ever perceived the lights as being out of sync, while those stopped at a red frequently think so. (Have you ever heard anyone complain that the green light on the street they've been traveling lasted too long?)

That being said, with the exception of the existence of bicyclists, out-of-sync lights in the city are perhaps the most  common source of complaints received at Getting There. In past articles, I've passed along the candid admission from transportation officials that lights that are in sync don't  necessarily stay that way because of equipment glitches and other reasons. They depend on the public to report instances where lights have ceased to work properly.

What they've told me is that primal screams about citywide problems don't help much but that specific reports about where lights are out of sync and when can alert them to problems that otherwise  might have been overlooked for some time. They say  that calling those reports in to 311 will get action. Readers should taken them up on that offer -- and let Getting There know if they get no response.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 2:11 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: On the roads


(Have you ever heard anyone complain that the green light on the street they've been traveling lasted too long?)

Did that just a couple months ago!

COMMENT: That's one since the invention of stoplights.

I am baffled by what you've been told be transportation officials. There's a citywide problem with the synchronization of traffic signals, and we citizens are supposed to figure out which ones are out of sync? How on Earth would I begin to figure out which ones (if any) are correct and which one's aren't?

Our complaints are about the system as a whole, which is something we are clearly not in a position to evauate and devise a solution for.

COMMENT: Many people notice a synchronization problem at a single intersection over and over -- such as a dominant street on too short a cycle to clear traffic while a secondary street gets a long green. That's the kind of specific problem officials say they can go out to, verify and fix. Citywide problems tend to have citywide solutions with big price tags -- such as all-new computerized systems. Those tend to take years to implement. So if a citizen wants to get something fixed soon, the best way is to report a specifiic problem at A Road and B Street between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. on weekdays. Highway workers will go out and verify whether the complaint is valid. If it is, the solution is up to them, not the citizens.

The lights on President street between Pratt and fayette/entrance to 83 are awful. Going north on President street, to get on 83, you can get stuck at a red light at the intersection of Baltimore. THen it turns green, but Fayette is still red so you cannot move. THen Baltimore turns back to red, while Fayette is green, but no one is going through the light onto 83, because they are stuck at Baltimore street. THis is just one example on that stretch.

I have to agree with Gary. The lights on President Street seem to use pre-Harbor East timing, and this leads to dangerous backups on President and all the cross streets, AM or PM. For example, the left turn lane from southbound President Street onto eastbound Baltimore Street will fill, leaving drivers coming off of 83 and drivers turning from Fayette Street with nowhere to go - most often, they'll block the box at President and Fayette (in front of police HQ, no less). The lights at President Street and all its major crossings - Fayette, Baltimore, Lombard, Pratt, Eastern and Fleet - as well as the nearby lights at E. Fayette and Colvin and E. Lombard and Market need to be resynchronized for the increased traffic to Harbor East. (The other nearby lights - E. Pratt and Albemarle, Eastern and Albemarle, and Fleet and Exeter all seem to be synched fine.)

Final thought - at that heinous President/E. Fayette intersection, there really should be more of a delay between the left turn arrow from southbound I-83 onto E. Fayette turning red and the light for the northbound lanes turning green - there always seems to be someone turning left who gets stuck in the median. Granted, if people stopped when the arrow turned yellow...

COMMENT: This is just a guess, but my suspicion is that there are problems with the Fayette/President intersection that go far beyond badly synchronized lights. Even the best synchronization won't help when an intersection is simply overwhelmed by traffic.

Ok the city needs us to report the bad traffic lights - here's my list... Check the ones in the 21224 zip code, 21201, 21202, heck any zip code that starts with 212 and is in the city. None of these lights have been improved - not in the last 6 months, year or 10 years. Start over. Drive on any city route and once you hit the county, bam, traffic moves better. Let SHA have a try.

COMMENT: That's a good example of a primal scream rather than a useful report. That's not to say that folks aren't entitled to a good scream from time to time.

I haven't noticed a problem with the lights on routes that I regularly use. Sometimes they are convenient, sometimes not. (Outside downtown not all of them are on the same length cycle, so inconsistency is unavoidable at those.) The primary "complaint" I would have is that there are instances where the timing encourages speeding, e.g. the right arrow from Madison onto Edison to make the lights at Biddle and Federal.

One thing to note about the specific example of traveling around 6:00 am is that this may be exactly when the lights switch from normal to rush-hour timing (if that happens in the morning; I know it does in the afternoon at some intersections at least). Maybe those lights on Charles are skipping a cycle when they reset, and that should be fixable; but somebody will have to wait (or stop prematurely) when the cycle switches over.

As a cyclist I appreciate the mistimed lights to a degree, because otherwise if they are all green people accelerate up Charles and Calvert at 50mph.


As much as I've touted the efficiency of the Baltimore signal system, I confess that as of late I've experienced a similar situation southbound on Cathedral to Liberty to Hanover to Conway to I-395. Could be a coincidence, though. I'm more aggravated by the rush hour lane issue on Charles St with the UB Law School construction. I think there's a better way there...

COMMENT: Pretend I'm a city official who wants to fix it and give me specifics, including times of day. I'll pass it on to the Department of Transportation.

I'm more interested in solid info about that traffic center implemented under Dixon. When it began, the Sun reported it was a million $$ facility that officials claimed could be used to solve real-time traffic situations. Obviously it's never been used. During none of the construction projects have any backups been resolved in realtime, even when it has been very apparent which flow direction was in need of a longer green. I really question officials' insistence that drivers need to be the ones alerting to dysfunction. What were the million $$ of taxpayer money used for if the darn traffic center can't do this on its own?!

As long as you're passing info to DOT:
1. Why is there still parking on s St Paul - the one block s of Mount Royal? I know MV needs more parking but those 5 spots totally screw traffic from all of St Paul and I-83 which have to merge from 3 to 2 lanes, then slow for turns from both, including rights toward 395/95 that used to flow through the right parking lane.
2. What's up with wb Lombard and its nb cross streets? From my office we've seen 3 major collisions in less than a week.
3. The 1st block of N Charles -- between Balt and Fayette -- beteen 5 and 6 pm is in desperate need of traffic assistance. Yesterday hotel parkers blocked 2 full lanes - PARKED cars, no drivers around! - parked airport buses blocked one right lane, and 3 lanes of Charles plus a lane exiting a building garage had to merge to ONE LANE! Ridiculous.

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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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