Traffic signal timing: Waiting for the green light

Signal coordination plan underway for Sheridan Drive

red light

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Ever wonder how much of your life is wasted stopped at traffic lights?

It can get fairly frustrating when you need to be somewhere fast and you’re hitting red light after red light.

News 4 checked out a couple of busy roads in the area to see how long it takes to travel from one location to the next.

For example, it took nearly 16-minutes to travel Sheridan Drive between Elmwood and Millersport during the late morning on a weekday. It took about 13-minutes coming back the other way.

The same route traveled during early afternoon provided a slightly different time, taking took about 11-minutes one way and 14-minutes the other way.

“It was actually what I would expect,” said New York State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Susan Surdej. “You traveled at different times of the day. You got a little bit different results and that’s also expected.”

Surdej says the goal is to strike a balance between moving traffic efficiently and safely.

“When you coordinate a signal you’re starting at point A and you’re essentially tying it in to green time at the next signal. So, in theory traffic can progress. However, that’s assuming that you’re traveling the speed limit and there’s no interruptions,” she said.

A study by Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that the average commuter spent an extra 42 hours a year on the road because of traffic congestion.

And while the Buffalo area can’t compare to long commute times and traffic gridlock in places like Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, there are some western New York roads — depending on time of day — that can put the brakes on a stress-free commute, especially if you’re in a hurry to get somewhere.

“I try not to think about it, and thank god I don’t have road rage,” said Buffalo resident Shawn Thurmond. I go a little. I stop. I go a little. I stop, and it’s nerve-wracking.”

Thurmond says Transit Road can be very frustrating at times.

“It seems like they’re not in sync,” she said. “Even though traffic is going, if they were in sync, you should be able to travel a little more before I have to stop.”

A recent early afternoon trip down Transit Road between Sheridan Drive and Clarence Center Road took News 4 a little over 6-minutes one way and about 5-minutes the other way.

The same two mile stretch took about 5-minutes one way and nearly 6-minutes the other way

“It’s something that we’re constantly fine-tuning,” Surdej explained. “There’s a lot of nuances to programming traffic signals, especially on these major arterials. So, what we do is come up with a programming plan. And most of the time on the major arterials it varies for different parts of the day.”

She says there’s a lot to programming traffic signals, and that coordinating them can be impacted by a lot of different factors including whether someone’s traveling the speed limit and whether there’s side road traffic.

Also, pedestrian crossings can interrupt the flow of traffic on a main road.

“Signal timing is definitely not an exact science. It’s something that we’re constantly changing and monitoring,” Surdej said.

Buffalo resident John Whalen says waiting for a left turn signal, especially when there’s little to no traffic, is one of his pet-peeves.

“You typically get stuck at that left light and you got to wait a cycle or two or you might get skipped over and it’s kind of frustrating at times,” he said.

For the most part, Whalen says he doesn’t mind waiting for traffic signals to cycle through.

“Windows down, summertime. I mean it’s not so bad.”

Surdej says DOT has a full-time signal crew that maintains traffic lights and checks arterials regularly.

She says just in the Buffalo region the agency is responsible for over 800 traffic signals.

“We’re always looking at and monitoring our commercial arterials, our major arterials and trying to move traffic in the efficient way possible.”

She says an arterial is going to get more green time because of traffic volume.

“It varies. An average traffic cycle would be two minutes, but that would take into account all phases. So it would take into account your arterial and your side street, and any pedestrian phases.”

Surdej says DOT is currently working on a plan to “better coordinate” traffic signals on Sheridan Drive which is expected to be implemented in about a month or two, along with Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst.

News 4 also checked Main Street in Amherst. It took about 9-minutes to go from Transit Road to the I-290 interchange through Williamsville.

She says traffic signals on Main Street were recently “timed and coordinated,” which led to a 17 percent increase in traffic.

“People realize it’s moving well and more people are using it. Now you’re trying to move more traffic with those same signals.”

The signal coordination plan involves taking traffic counts and reprogramming so that each signal is tied into the next based on speed limit and other factors.

In case you’re wondering, the sections of Sheridan Drive, Transit Road and Main Street that News 4 checked out for this story each average about 30,000 vehicles a day.

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