Traffic signal program goes from ‘Stone Age to state of the art’

Traffic signal program goes from ‘Stone Age to state of the art’
City traffic engineers are working to improve traffic flow throughout the city, particularly during peak rush hours, with new traffic signal and monitoring equipment. Photo by Rachel Stine

CARLSBAD — With funding for another batch of equipment recently approved, the city’s innovative traffic project is well underway to improving traffic flow throughout Carlsbad.The three-year project will link almost all of the city’s 174 traffic signals to the city’s traffic management center and essentially, “bring the whole entire traffic signals program up to speed,” said Doug Bilse, a city senior traffic engineer.

“Our traffic signal system has gone from the Stone Age to state of the art,” said city of Carlsbad Public Works Director Skip Hammann in a press release. “We are on course to achieve our objective to implement a world class traffic signal program in a fraction of the time and cost needed to complete similar projects.”

As part of the program, the city has updated traffic signals with equipment including cameras for vehicle detection, wireless communication devices, and emergency pre-emption equipment, according to Bilse.

The city’s new system will enable city staff to map and monitor traffic flow in real time and instantaneously change traffic signals remotely.

The system makes it “easy and seamless to observe and manage the signals that are constantly changing,” said Bilse.

Currently two years into the project, engineers have connected 130 traffic signals within the city to the traffic management center so far.

City Council approved an additional $1.75 million to purchase and install the last of the necessary equipment to update the remainder of the city’s signals at its June 11 meeting.

“Traffic seems to be one of the biggest quality of life issues for our residents. It affects everybody from our youngest to our oldest, our richest, our poorest, our visitors, our residents,” said Councilmember Keith Blackburn.

Because of its innovation, the project is actually under budget and six months ahead of schedule, said Bilse.

He said that the city has used the project to implement the latest technology and strategies to improve traffic, and consequently many traffic equipment vendors have been eager for their products to be used and have offered their equipment at reduced prices.

“There were a lot of vendors that wanted to be part of this groundbreaking project, and we got very good pricing as a result,” he said.

City staff estimates the project will have cost a total of $4.5 million at its completion, which is $1.2 million less than the original estimate.

Bilse said the program has already improved traffic in terms of average travel speed, stops per mile, and the number of times cars arrive at a green light versus a red light.

“I’ve definitely seen a difference in the last year or so,” said Mayor Matt Hall.

One of the project’s biggest improvements has been on traffic along Palomar Airport Road.

Before the project, city engineers found that it would take nearly 12 minutes to drive from Interstate 5 to San Marcos on the road during the peak hour of 5:50 p.m. After improvements were made to the road’s signals last summer, Bilse said the drive was reduced to eight minutes and 30 seconds.

The traffic updates also benefit bicyclists and pedestrians with cameras that better detect bicyclists and timed pedestrian crosses at busy intersections.

Overall, improving traffic involves more than just changing lights since adjustment to one direction of traffic impacts traffic in the opposite direction and traffic on side streets as well.

“It’s a balancing act that we have to constantly be improving,” Bilse said.

He said that city staff monitor current traffic conditions a combined eight to nine hours per day, and the new system allows them to manually override traffic signal programs when equipment malfunctions or traffic conditions divert from normal patterns.

Bilse explained that for a one-time event that affects traffic, such as temporary construction, staff will manually change a traffic signal pattern temporarily to work around that event.

But to accommodate for occurrences that have a prolonged effect on traffic flow, including weather, a special event, or an emergency, staff is working to develop a multitude of alternative traffic signal patterns to address unique traffic situations.

Ultimately staff aspires to be able to respond to signal issues even before traffic is impacted, he said.

Moving forward, city staff intend to focus more on traffic flows during off peak hours to make signals more effective during all times of day, Bilse said.



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