Red to green: Syracuse working to upgrade traffic signal system

Jul 7, 2014

It’s what every commuter hates when trying to get to work in the morning: red lights. They slow drive times down and waste gas, but the city of Syracuse is working to upgrade its traffic light system, so drivers see more green.

"By coordinating the traffic lights, what happens is, we can tell the traffic light not only how long to be green in a certain direction, but when to go green," explains Harry Carlson of the city's public works department.

It’s called traffic signal optimization. Right now, downtown Syracuse’s traffic lights work on three pre-set systems: morning commute, evening commute, and times in between.  

As commander of the city’s traffic control room, Carlson can normally punch in a new code if road work or a snowstorm is changing traffic patterns. But the room has been closed for about a year.

That’s because the city is putting a major upgrade into its traffic control system, slated to be operational this fall. Paul Mercurio, the city’s transportation planner, says the new system will get beyond just three pre-set timings.

"With the new equipment being installed, it’s going to be more adaptable," he said. "It’ll be easier for us to interact and upgrade."

It’s a $9 million upgrade. New traffic signals and wiring is mostly paid for through federal grants. And more traffic monitoring cameras will give Carlson and Mercurio a live look at traffic.

Significant benefit

But sensors will also be placed in the pavement to signal when cars are waiting at reds and how many make it through a green light. And not having to wait at as many red lights, or for not as long, has benefits.

Signal optimization results in more consistent commute times, according to Douglas Noble, senior director for management and operations at the Institute of Transportation Engineers. He says drivers will see delays to their commute reduced about 15 percent on average.

"Some improvement in the amount of time it takes for them to get to work. What they’ll probably see is fewer times they may be stopped at any individual light," he said.

When cars idle or accelerate, they burn more gas and spit out more emissions. By cutting down on delays at intersections, drivers use less fuel and cities get cleaner air.

"Over ten years, traffic has changed."

"Once you add up the cost of delay of people sitting in traffic, tend to be very significant, on the order of 30-to-1 in terms of the benefits to cost in terms of implementing them," he said. 

Mercurio, the city’s transportation planner, says Syracuse saw a 15 percent reduction in emissions when it last upgraded its lights a decade ago.

"So over the course of ten years, traffic has changed," he said. "And we’re going to make sure the system has adapted to how those patterns have changed over the past ten years."

This new signal system will expand out of downtown to some of Syracuse’s main corridors: James Street, West Genesee Street, Geddes Street and North Salina Street.

Pete O’Connor, the commissioner of Syracuse's Department of Public Works, says that signal optimization does not mean it will be all green for drivers down those streets.

"They are still going to have to stop at red lights," he said with a laugh. "It’s just going to hopefully allow them to go a longer ways, a longer distance without stopping at a red light, but they’re still going to have to stop."

The system is pegged for cars going the speed limit, O'Connor notes. Go too fast to try and catch lights, and you just end up waiting longer for the system to catch up.