Rant – Traffic Lights in Atlanta, GA

OK I have to ask this. Does anybody out there think that their traffic signaling system is actually worse than that which we have here in Atlanta, Georgia?
I cannot believe that there has been any thought at all given to the timing of these lights unless they are to specifically favor the direction of travel of some city council member.

I recognize that there can only ever be a single direction of signal optimization in any area. But I have not been able to discern any pattern beyond “random” around my area. It is the nature of people to find patterns in even the most chaotic systems (hence the popularity of Numerology and other silly past times) but here we have a system so chaotic, so random that I have never met a soul who claims to discern method in this arena.

I visited San Francisco back in 2000 and it was immediately apparent that somebody had put a lot of thought into the traffic signalling system there. Even if the lights were not optimized in the direction that I was going, it was OK with me as I understood that the traffic was as good as it was going to get. Optimizing the busiest direction will naturally decongest every other direction of traffic anyway by preventing gridlock.

Every time any of our traffic signals are altered here in North Atlanta, it is inevitably to make the phases longer (greater duration) in every direction. And this isn’t just my subjective feeling either. Faced with an incredible number of mis-programmed signals on my daily commute I have plenty of time to take out a stopwatch that I now keep in my car for exactly that purpose, and I time the lights to see how long they actually do take. And, after adjustments, I can tell you that they are always set to greater durations than they were before.

I’m not sure who the wa-hoo is who’s driving this philosophy, but when folks sit around wondering why Atlanta drivers are so discourteous, and why they run the red lights so often here, I can give you a partial answer right now. BECAUSE THERE IS NO REWARD FOR OBEYING THE LIGHTS. If you actually do obey the yellow signal – at the risk of being rear-ended – your reward for this is a very long red light and that’s it. There is no knowledge that you’re participating in an organized traffic system, no assurance that you will now be able to proceed unhindered in a well thought out traffic flow. Only the knowledge that you’ve stopped at one randomly set traffic signal and that, at the next signal you will face yet another random chance at stop or go.

If any planners are listening and you actually do put some thought into how these signals are timed and synchronized, I know that I for one would like to know your rationale (assuming there is one) and I’m sure that communicating it to the general public will make great strides toward making drivers feel like they are participating in an organized system rather than the carelessly evolved mess that it appears to be.

This may seem like a trivial concern with so much of import happening around the globe. But I put it to you that it is truly the littlest things that have the greatest impact on us. Who here has not had a great day at work, maybe even garnered an award or some recognition and then hit EVERY-RED-LIGHT-ON-THE-WAY-HOME? Tell me that this seemingly trivial occurrence did not suck the joy out of an otherwise great day and leave you feeling annoyed and disconcerted.

One thought on “Rant – Traffic Lights in Atlanta, GA”

  1. I’ve lived all over the country and the light duration in atl has to be the longest anywhere. Why? Certainly someone decided to do so for a reason but to me it seems to gum up the city more than what is needed. I would really like to know the thinking behind it because Houston, St. Louis, LA and Salt Lake City doesn’t have anything near to the length of cycle on their systems. I too have gone to stop watch testing and you are right. They just get longer.

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