The Disruption of Traffic Lights.

How many times have you been stopped at traffic lights when there was little or no traffic coming in other directions but your way is jammed? How many times has the road ahead been empty, loads of cars behind you, the green light ahead is waiting, but it changes to red just as you approach? When was the last time you saw your local council or road authority remove any traffic lights or think up anything new?

A concept I produced during my time at Razorfish for VicRoads

Image: A traffic density indicator concept I produced (during my time at Razorfish) for VicRoads.

The problem with traffic lights is they are one of the most poorly managed pieces of technology in the modern world. Most sit on timers with no predictive methodology for using patterns of traffic (even though the data often already exists in road sensors). The result is a frustrating problem with a myriad of consequences. You have to question the imagination of authorities in charge and where they are spending their time and energy. A study and prototype system (Merlin) released by Toronto University earlier this year showed they could improve wait times at traffic lights by 40% using smart junctions reducing total travel time by 25%. Yes 25% (see video below).

As with many organisations I’ve worked with most individuals in a position to make a disruptive decision fear the consequences of radical thinking more than they see the benefit. In short, they fear losing their jobs by trying something new. Governments and associations are often the worst. Anyway let’s look at some potential solutions:

Disruptive Traffic Light Ideas:
(Please note there are many ideas out there to help ease traffic congestion – these are just related to intersections)

– Crowd sourced traffic control: Allow timer based lights to be adjusted by the community. If wikipedia can work, why can’t traffic lights. Daft? Try it first and let it fail. A closely monitored trial would do little harm.
– Smart Traffic lights: Sensor based data to monitor traffic flow. (See video above)
– More temporary traffic lights: Lights that only operate when they need to. (The USA has flashing orange at some junctions at night).
– More ‘safe turn allowed’ junctions: Lights that allow you to make turns if safe, even if lights are red. Maybe time restricted.
– Innovation labs within Road Authorities: Let’s introduce some smart people into these rather archaic institutions.
– New Traffic light intelligent signs: See image above. Use existing sensor data to make new types of signs.
– Driverless Intersections: One for the future:

Any other ideas or links please post them below or pm me.


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2 Responses

  1. There’s so many road- and driving-related areas that are in need of digital disruption. Inefficiencies abound, which is why so many pedestrians and vehicles routinely break the law – nominally to save time by ignoring a stop/don’t walk signal. One innovation I spotted – there is new pedestrian light technology with a countdown clock between the ‘green man’ and the ‘red man’? It is in use at Chatswood’s main intersection (Archer and Victoria Sts). A simple way to stop people rushing out in front of the cars.
    Cheers. Tim
    PS noticed a typo on ‘congestion’

  2. eunmac says:

    Thanks for typo spot Tim. You’re completely right about people breaking laws as a result of poor traffic management. Those countdown timers have been in the US and UK for some time. Amazing it takes so long for sensible things to make its way to Australia sometimes.

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