Green light: Why not sync every signal before Bypassing?

Can you imagine zipping up U.S. 29 north through green lights and reaching the airport in a matter of minutes, so efficiently that, wait, we don't need this new $436 million, forest-cutting, mountain-moving road that just been revealed to cost double earlier estimates?

Okay, maybe that's not in the wildest imagination of planners.

What is imaginable is that the 14 traffic lights that the Western 29 Bypass will avoid could be synchronized for just $42,000, according to UVA transportation engineer Byungkyu "Brian" Park. A man whose ideas and computer models have won him acclaim in national transportation journals, Park remains practically unknown in Charlottesville.

Yet, in a place that may soon hold the dubious distinction of building a bypass that doesn't actually bypass some of its key bottlenecks, shouldn't Charlottesville and Albemarle synchronize all their lights before embarking on a six-mile, VDOT-estimated  $400-plus-million project, a project so controversial that it's been stalled for 20 years, and whose most ardent supporters concede won't solve the congestion on U.S. 29 north?

"Typically, cities and state DOTs don't have enough money to do the timing," Park says helpfully. "They've got to do the potholes, too."

Park pegs the synchronization cost at just $3,000 per intersection, and that estimate includes going out to collect traffic counts at peak hours and setting up models.

"It's not like you're building a bridge," says Park. "You just change the settings. It's fairly cheap."

Park's computer models suggest that every traffic light in the United States, all 340,000 of them, could be synchronized to keep traffic moving, saving fuel and travel times. At a coast-to-coast cost of $1.02 billion, and with improved travel times ranging from 10 to 30 percent, the question arises, why aren't all the traffic lights in this country synchronized?

"That's a good question," Park says.

This area has seen some signal synchronization. One longtime resident remembers special signals– removed in the 1990s– along West Main Street telling motorists what speed to drive for optimal red-light avoidance.

West Main was re-timed in late 2005. Yet $200,000 worth of software still required a technician to manually reset the lights each day for a year and another $180K in additional software, former city councilor Kevin Lynch recalls.

"One of my concerns was the amount of money thrown out," says Lynch. "It's not rocket science to synchronize lights."

Park echoes the sentiment. And it turns out Charlottesville officials are once again trying to sync West Main lights, and this time it should be a lot cheaper.

"We already have the hardware," says city traffic engineer Jeanie Alexander, "and we've been collecting data this week."

The new West Main project stretches from Ridge Street to 14th Street, and also includes intersections on nearby Roosevelt Brown, Cherry Avenue, and Crispell Drive, "so we don't cause problems there," says Alexander, who puts the cost for 12 intersections at about $25,000.

Emmet Street/U.S. 29 was supposedly synchronized in 2009. On the city's portion of that busy corridor, travel time was reduced 15 percent during peak morning hours and 12 percent during peak afternoon commutes, Alexander says.

U.S. 29 from Hydraulic to Airport Road was resynchronized in 2008-2009 for a travel time savings of about a minute, according to VDOT regional operations manager Dean Gustafson. 

"We've had nothing but positive comments about that," he says.

Some recent 29 travelers, after sitting through three or four traffic lights on a trip up to Target, might beg to differ. Over time, with new businesses, shopping centers, and subdivisions popping up, efficient traffic flow is degraded, says Park. And then there are people's perceptions.

"Their view is that they're going to drive up the road, and every light will be green," says Steve Williams, Thomas Jefferson Planning District executive director. "But you're still sitting at lights. The funny thing is, you can get pretty good improvement, but people don't perceive it."

As it turns out, unless you're in a downtown situation with one-way streets and short blocks, a string of greens may be the holy grail– but equally unattainable.

For the rest of the world, when lights are timed, there are measurable improvements, along with reduced fuel use and pollution, says Williams, but on a busy corridor like 29, green-after-green, he says, is "not going to happen."

We just happened to be taking a phone call from Wendell Wood on Monday, September 19, when the developer of Hollymead Town Center stayed on the line, encountering nothing but greens as he drove from Ivy Road to a point past Wal-Mart without hitting a single red light– something he says he can't predict even though he paid for four of the intersections along the way.

"It works when it works," says Wood.

The number of lights on U.S. 29 goes far beyond the 21 signals in Albemarle: there are three in Greene, five in Madison, three in Culpeper and nine in Fauquier, according to VDOT.

In exchange for Western 29 Bypass and priority road projects funding, Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton has said the rest of the Albemarle U.S. 29 corridor will be a "test bed" for limited access, with fewer lights and curb cuts, and– you guessed it– better signal synchronization.

There are alternatives for reducing congestion, but they may be even more controversial than bypass building. Park notes that the 18.4 cents-a-gallon gas tax, which goes to the Highway Trust Fund, hasn't been raised since 1993. Meanwhile, cars have become more efficient, which means proportionally less money going into highway infrastructure.

Park points to the so-called congestion fees that have been slapped on commuters from London to the Netherlands. "If you are causing additional congestion at peak hours," says Park, "you pay more."

Could it happen here? "Both experts and politicians are looking at that," he says.

On September 19, Governor Bob McDonnell announced he's gotten the okay for tolls on I-95, so with Albemarle's portion of U.S. 29 now a test bed for corridor cleansing, who knows?

Updated September 20 with I-95 announcement and Charlottesville Tomorrow's report that VDOT's unofficial cost estimates are more than double what the Commonwealth Transportation Board was told.

Read more on: u.s. 29western bypass


"a project so controversial that it's been stalled for 20 years and one whose most ardent supporters concede won't solve the congestion"

I call b.s. on that one. How about adding a link to that quote, showing where these "ardent supporters" conceded that?

I'm a huge supporter of the bypass project, ardent even.

I don't think it will solve the congestion problems, but how else will we ever get water to the new reservoir if not along the bypass right of way? There really isn't another route and I'd hate to see all that money wasted for naught.

It will clearly alleviate traffic on 29 south of Walmart. It is foolish to for anyone to claim otherwise.

Syncing every stoplight and building a Western 29 Bypass would work really well.

In the meantime, what about access roads, overpasses with interchanges, and turning most lights to green on 29N during rush hour. It's worked really well in other areas of the country.

Lisa Provence must be one of those "I hate the bypass people". I am a "ardent supporter of the bypass" and I don't concede it won't help solve congestion. Also it has been stalled for 20 years because a few people on the BOS have blocked it, one who lives very close to where the bypass will go; can you say conflict of interest?

Also it has been stalled for 20 years because a few people on the BOS have blocked it, one who lives very close to where the bypass will go; can you say conflict of interest?

That's not a conflict of interest—that's just representation for the thousands of people who live close to where the bypass will go. You can't really believe that a member of the Board of Supervisors should recuse himself from voting on the topic simply because the bypass will be near his home, can you? Should we redistrict the county so that nobody represents that area? Or should we divide up the districts to dilute the voting power of the area, so that it's less likely that they'll be able to get somebody on the BoS? What about members of the BoS who just drive on 29N a lot? Or who work along 29N? Or own a business somewhere along the 250 bypass? Aren't they all affected?

Of course, this would be a different matter if the vote were being held on whether to seize land for the bypass, and some of the land to be seized was owned by of a member of the BoS. But neither blood nor money are at issue here, and thus there's no clear conflict of interest.

Sync the lights! Sync the lights! OMG ... sync the damn lights! I lose about 15min of my life every day because of the idiotic timing of traffic lights on 29. They work AGAINST the flow of traffic. In Cville's defense, they're like that ALL THE WAY up to route 66.

Whatever anyone wants to say regarding the competition between the Hook and C'Ville Weekly, there is no doubt that the C'Ville Weekly win hands down in the category of 'Editing for Grammar and Readability.'

The two paragraphs (and I use the term loosely) quoted here: "What is imaginable .... won't solve the congestion on U.S. 29 north?" are examples of simply ATROCIOUS writing. I mean, truly abysmal, high-school level, completely jumbled prose.

The Hawes Spencer School of Writing seems to have taken root at The Hook. You would be better served by hiring an undergrad from UVa's English department to serve as your editor.


Good to know I wasn't the only one who spent an extra 15 seconds trying to make sense of that... Foolishly worded. Hawes, send your writing to me and I'll proof it for you-- I passed my first year writing requirement.

Good grief...

The plan is for only one exit, at Leonard Sandridge Road, the current JPJ half exit on the bypass. And it is very close to the southern end. So development would easily replace the small fraction of traffic the new bypass diverts. The point is not to alleviate traffic it is to bypass traffic. Whether it's worth it is another matter.

Say you live north of Hollymead and you get offered a job at Fontaine Research Park. And gas is about $4.50/gallon and rising. Do you buy a thriftier car, move closer, not take the job, commute off-peak, or try to telecommute? All those decisions weigh differently with a new road. In fact, why bother to decide, just get in your same car and go, two stoplights, and you're at work, new job pays for the gas. That's how roads fill up.

Congestion ffes? In Charlottesville? Even I don't wish that upon the Forest Lakers and Hollymeadians...

I've been saying sync the lights better for years. I'm glad someone with the appropriate college degree finally said it so someone may listen, because what good is a simple idea that is not backed up with the appropriate diploma? Might I suggest even further, that if we actually cared about reducing pollution, the ridiculous parking lot shapes that are apparently required by zoning these days, which make you drive 300 yards to get your car to a space 10 feet away from you outside of the parking lot need to be scrapped. Exactly what problem did this infinity of parking lot islands and dead ends cure? I was also really tickled by some graffiti I saw recently on the sign on North Park Street, it says "Speed Humps" and someone spray painted on "waste gas". Thank you! And who gave anyone the right to put a speed hump down whose maximum posted safe speed is LOWER THAN THE SPEED LIMIT?! If you want to lower the damned speed limit, then lower it. If you're not going to go through all the bureaucratic hoops to do that, then stop crapping up the road with obstacles!

Meanwhile, don't you mean wins? Not win? Nice editing skills, eh? Colfer, gas is not currently $4.50 a gallon in Charlottesville....

Oops sorry Mr. jaquith I must have stepped on your toes. I forgot that politicians look out for their constituents and not themselves, I will try to do better.

Gas will be at least $4.50 when the new bypass is complete.

The whole notion of wards and political leaders elected to represent their neighborhoods assumes that they will have different perspectives from those of the political leaders from other areas. That doesn't mean there is a "conflict of interest" in a legal sense. Folks fuss at Dennis Rooker for voting to stop the Western Bypass because it would hurt the area that he represents, which happens to be the area that he lives. If that is your idea of a conflict of interest, why not fault Ken Boyd, for helping to kill an Eastern Bypass that would have gone through his area?

The definition of a conflict of interest, legally, is that a vote that you are taking affects your property in some unique way. So if you own a single-family house, and the zoning ordinance is being amended to affect the value of single-family houses, it is not a conflict of interest for you to vote on that ordinance unless the amendment affected your property uniquely.

Then, of course, there was the approach of the late Senator Ed McCue. When the General Assembly was trying to decide in the 1960's whether to run I-64 north of Charlottesville or south of Charlottesville, Senator McCue was quoted as having said, "It doesn't matter to me. I have property both places."

It just isn't that far- and who is in that much of a hurry to get to Charlottersville anyway.

What does everyone do when they get to the end in Charlottesville or Ruckersville?

........synching works great in way N/S avenues certainly help.

i don't understand why the 4 lane 29 section isn't divided into 2 bypass lanes and 2 frontage lanes. Pretty up a bit, throw a divider and trees. If a new bypass would reduce traffic on the 29 by x%, then why would we need the 4 lanes?

Heh...they are currently synchronized - for 51MPH. That will get you from Hydraulic to the Rivanna without a red. They've been this way since the last major widening project. I have always assumed the timing - to hit nearly ever red if you do the speed limit - was a deliberate move to "traffic calm" and slow down the the flow. Meredith Richards 'freudian' slip regarding the real purpose of traffic calming (annoying/inconveniencing drivers) and Carter Myers' love of retail traffic generating left-turn lanes seemed to align nicely.

As noted above: the bypass will improve nothing for anyone but Wendell Woods and Forest Lakes; anyone living in Forest Lakes will have a nice fast jump to UVa.

This is interesting. Am I the only person who thinks the synchronization on 29 is not perfect, but pretty good? I drive it up from Hydraulic Rd to Ruckersville every day and back; on the way up, I usually get stopped at the Shoppers World intersection and sometimes the Airport Rd intersection, but other than that it's usually green lights up to the Sheetz/Food Lion intersection in Greene at which point it gets a bit more random. On the way back, I get stopped at Airport Rd and then Walmart, then I usually make it to the ToysRUs/Applebees light before getting red. That's it... I may be in the minority here, but that doesn't seem terrible.

I have to question the assessment from the land of make believe (i.e. academia) for the following (to name a few): 1) It is signal coordination not synchronization (synchro would time all signals the same which would likely result in start-stop and coordination allows for progression). 2) It costs a minimum of $5,000 to collect traffic data at an intersection and 3) It is not as simple as just adjusting the timings - communication between signals, a master signal controller and other components are needed or the signals will not stay coordinated over time due to power surges, emergency vehicles, etc. Academia and practical application does not always go hand-in-hand which is evident with the catastrophic results from all the academics in the Obama admin.

You want to make every green light on 29 from Hydraulic to the Airport. Go exactly 58 MPH. Try it and you will see. Took me a few turns in the early mornings to figure it out but trust me...its true.

Now, why the lights would be set at 58 in a 45 speed zone remains curious to me.

Can we look at doing Pantops too!

@jimi hendrix is correct, though I've only tried this from morton drive to Brown Auto.

I was recently in Ocean City, Maryland and heading north at 5:30 in the afternoon we went from 10th street to the Delaware line with all green lights, over 110 blocks! As soon as we got to Delaware it was apparent they weren't timed properly, we had 2 stops in the next 6 lights.

Just friday heading on rio east heading toward 29. Hit the light at 29- the left turn went twice before we were able to cross the intersection. I was car #3- I wasn't 10 feet out when the light turned yellow- what the heck. The lights are a real mess. 2 or 3 minutes before we got the light and all the traffic went twice then we get a 10 second light. Something is seriously wrong with that.

jimi hendrix- if the speeed limit is 45 and that does not get you through every light with a green, then the lights are not synchronized..........

brian- I have done that too- not sure what color te lights were though

Come on now. The lights are in sync. now and you can only get 1-2 cars accross Hydrallic per light sequence. So instead folks stay on the bypass and get off on Barracks Rd. and then turn onto Georgtown Road which creates another bottleneck at the Best Buy ramp. We need to get the through traffic out of the City!

Synching is only a stop gap measure, not a fix, boneheads. mass transit or a large die off are the only real fixes

perhaps they should be synch'd in groups of one- no one will notice or care.

They are STOP lights, not GO lights....................

hey, how are those "red light cameras" working?

why do we need to hear about innovative solutions from the local newspaper. Where was the bored of supers on asking these questions and insisting on doing all the little, available things right before jamming through a (more) expensive (everyday) bypass.

Lack of leadership by Boyd, Thomas, Snow - just saluting to state guys who say let's get things done - don't let info or analysis get in the way.

That no more Boyd thing is cool - where'd it come from ? Hooray and good riddance.

How about syncing the lights in the city of Charlottesville? Driving from one end of town to another is an inevitable stop-and-go affair. And then there are those lights that stay red for you when NO CAR has pulled up to the opposing signal.

Jimmy Hendrix is correct, they are synchronized but not for 45. You have to be an assertive driver,(not aggressive) to catch the greens but it can be done. Not often but its possible. The idea of synchronized traffic sounds good only if your willing to let cross traffic sit around for who knows how long. Otherwise its a physical impossibility. That is, no two pieces of matter can occupy the same space at the same time.

Just one more note on synched lights. Even under nominal conditions the brain dead drivers around here would ruin it for everyone anyway.

Versace Girl- it has nothing to do with synchronization (big word for me too) but has to do with the amount of traffic. Just like NYC.