Traffic improvements speed up travel times
STAMFORD — If you’ve noticed your drive through certain parts of Stamford has gotten a little shorter, that’s no coincidence.
Except for downtown, new fiber optic connections at many of the city’s traffic lights have allowed for better synchronization between signals, resulting in quicker commutes.
For Transportation Bureau Chief Jim Travers, the preliminary numbers are very encouraging.
“We are producing some pretty great results,” he said.
Some of those improvements include a 33 percent reduction in travel time on Summer Street between Bridge and Spring streets during the morning commute and a 21 percent decrease of drive time on Stillwater Avenue between Stillmeadow Elementary School and West Main Street during the early rush hour.
The project, which is funded by three federal grants worth nearly $10 million, involves installing fiber optic cables throughout the city to replace the old and problematic copper wires. The old system was vulnerable to the elements. For example, if a light went down due to a storm, it would disconnect from the network, pushing all other lights off schedule.
With the fiber optics and new hard drives installed in control boxes at intersections, the lights are better connected and can remain on schedule if disconnected from the system.
Once all of the city’s 209 lights are synchronized and connected by the end of the summer, the software in each light’s control box will run the stoplight, unlike the current system where everything comes from Stamford Government Center.
“We are making the initial investment to bring this system online to make changes that haven’t really occurred in the past 28 years and build a network that is easily adaptable,” Travers said.
Bob Lion, a member of the Stamford Board of Representatives who lives in North Stamford, said his drive to and from City Hall has gotten lighter.
“I find that I’m getting way better time,” he said.
The difference, Lion said, is that the new timing allows drivers to get a succession of green lights, instead of repeatedly being stopped by red lights.
Dave Avery, president of the Strawberry Hill Neighborhood Association, said he noticed an immediate change after the lights on Strawberry Hill Avenue were re-timed.
“I did notice being able to go up Strawberry Hill in a fashion I couldn’t before,” he said. “I could get all of the lights.”
Of course, the elephant in the room remains the downtown, which is the final frontier in completing the citywide signal timing, which hasn’t been done since 1991.
Downtown is the most complex timing system to design, since there are several main thoroughfares that intersect. It is not as easy as just prioritizing the street with more flow, since sometimes the number of cars is relatively the same for each.
The city has been successful in reducing travel times elsewhere in the city by prioritizing cars on long corridors such as High Ridge and Long Ridge roads, and Bedford and Summer streets.
Earlier this year, testing on High Ridge and Long Ridge roads concluded that signal optimization resulted in travel-time reductions of up to 31 percent. The biggest improvement was High Ridge Road northbound, between Cold Spring Road and the Merritt Parkway, where the signalization reduced the travel by four minutes.
Most of all the fiber optics are installed at traffic signals outside of downtown except for Hope Street. The hiccup is negotiating “attachment rights” for the cables to be placed on utility poles.
Fiber optic can either be installed underground, through existing conduits, or on utility poles.
While the city has dedicated space on utility poles, the poles themselves are still owned by private companies, namely Frontier Communications or Eversource, and the city needs to negotiate placement on them.
In all, Travers said the city has installed 127,000 feet of fiber optic cable to traffic signals.
He said the new system will be more autonomous and, paired with a video detection system, will be able to adjust to traffic patterns to allow for a better flow of cars.
“We can move traffic more efficiently,” Travers said.
That doesn’t mean everything will run smoothly, the transportation bureau chief said. Hiccups are still expected, and in extreme cases such as the snow storm of November last year that caused gridlock in downtown, no traffic signalization system can overcome it.
And speeding won’t help.
“What you should get is more greens if you drive the speed limit,” he said. “If you speed, you should get less greens because you’ll come to stop points since you’re ahead of the network.”
And even with the new system nearing completion, he still encourages residents to use the FixIt Stamford website to report outages and traffic issues, as it helps city officials more quickly address problems.
Looking forward, Travers sees the interconnected traffic signal system as a major tool for the city to use when new developments come online.
In the past, a major development would lead to traffic signal updates at lights near the new structure in anticipation of increased traffic. But those changes did not necessarily sync up with lights in the near vicinity.
Arthur Augustyn, spokesperson for Mayor David Martin, explains it like this:
“Lights are designed in a vacuum,” he said, of the old way. “With synchronization, it removes (the light) from out of the vacuum and puts it in context with everything.”
In other words, if light times are adjusted around a new development using the fiber optic system, timing will be similarly adjusted across the entire network, creating a truly adaptable and smart system.
“We don’t have to wait another 28 more years to do this again,” Travers said, of a citywide timing system. “We can make the city function better.”