Mark Singletary


I’ve heard it’s healthy and somewhat therapeutic to discuss one’s fixations and delusions. In my case, it hasn’t helped a bit. I admit to an unhealthy fixation on extolling the benefits of coordinated traffic flow and the delusion that anything significant will be done to deal with my frustration.

With all the problems facing society today, one might think it is foolish for me to dwell on such a trivial issue. But, based on U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) studies, and my observation, this is not a trivial issue.

According to the Institute of Transportation Engineers, there are more than 300,000 traffic signals in the United States and two-thirds of all miles driven are on streets and roads controlled by traffic signals. That data is for perspective.

I have preached the gospel of good traffic flow for years and in many cities. When I lived in New Orleans, I had the director of public works on speed dial. He and I talked regularly. I’m sure my number on his caller ID invoked a big sigh and rolling of the eyes. New Orleans traffic flow issues are significant, but since the real issue there is a murder rate that is 10 times the national average, I tried to keep things in perspective.

Birmingham traffic flow, on the other hand, is just confusing and puzzling. There are some one-way streets that have vaguely coordinated traffic lights, but by and large most of the traffic signals here seem randomly timed and completely frustrating.

Add to that the puzzling situation of burned out street lights at major intersections and I can set up an easy public relations victory for newly elected Mayor Randall Woodfin.

As an example, the intersection of University Boulevard and US Highway 280 heading east has two street light standards, one on each side of the street, and neither has a working light bulb. This is a very dark, very dangerous intersection and it’s been without a working street light for at least six months.

Fix the lights, please.

Imagine heading Uptown from Southside on 24th Street and not stopping at every traffic light on the way. How great would it be to look up the street and not see a yellow light, two greens and three reds?

Again, according to USDOT, money spent on optimizing traffic flow yields significant savings and great returns on the investment. The studies show that each dollar spent on traffic flow yields between 15 and 20 gallons of fuel savings per year. Spending a dollar to save $30 to $45 seems reasonable.

An engineering study in York County, VA estimated that savings on a single 1.5 mile stretch of Route 17 comes to $65,000 a year. That is one small section on a single street. Multiply that savings by the millions of miles driven on hundreds of thousands of streets and you can get the picture.

There are other benefits. Travel time is reduced an average 6.5 percent, on-street delays are reduced by 14 percent and the detrimental environmental effects of constant starting and stopping should be clearly evident, as well.

I’m certain there are variations, but basically there are two types of traffic controllers according to USDOT: pre-timed and traffic-actuated.

There are three types of traffic actuated systems. Semi-actuated systems assign a continuous green signal to major streets and react to vehicles waiting to enter the intersection from side streets. Fully actuated systems detect all traffic approaching intersections and work best when traffic volumes vary significantly over the course of a day.

Volume-density systems, the most costly and effective of the actuated control systems, record and compare traffic flow information and continuously calculate the duration of the traffic lights.

According to the USDOT, the volume-density system is the plan that traffic engineers get most excited about and are yielding the greatest technological advances.

These systems are relatively expensive to install and maintain. Optimizing and maintaining traffic lights that are not already set up for interconnectivity can cost an average of $1,000 per year.

Installation and personnel costs are significant, as well. The city would need to hire technicians and maintenance staff to install and manage the systems, but the economic return on investment is high and the public relations coefficient is outstanding.

Imagine the positive impact from a public relations campaign that promises a less frustrating, more efficient and ecologically friendly trip down the streets of Birmingham.

Fix the lights, please.

Mark Singletary

General Manager