Boston adjusting traffic light timing to fight congestion

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BOSTON – Driving in and out of the city, especially during rush hour, can be a nightmare, with one-way streets, bicyclists and pedestrians adding up to headaches for daily commuters. Boston drivers spend an average of 64 hours a year stuck in traffic, making it the seventh most congested city in the nation, according to monitoring service INRIX.

One little-known city organization, however, is working behind the scenes to make the commute a little more livable. The Traffic Management Center, or TMC, located in City Hall, monitors, coordinates and adjusts the timing of traffic lights by remote control to ease the congestion. The TMC is part of the Boston Transportation Department.

Maps and cameras help show where traffic is becoming congested in the city of Boston (New Boston Post photo by Beth Treffeisen)

Maps and cameras help show where traffic is becoming congested in the city of Boston (New Boston Post photo by Beth Treffeisen)

A large computer screen at the TMC monitors many of the traffic lights in the city.

“The display map up on the wall there shows us which locations are under computer control and if we have any issues,” said Donald Burgess, the senior engineer at the TMC, pointing to a screen.

The lights are tracked through a network of traffic monitoring cameras, specialized computer hardware and software, and WAZE – the world’s largest community-based traffic and navigation app. Based on the information from these sources, the TMC adjusts the timing of traffic signals in real time.

Currently, the TMC has computer control over 556 of the 849 traffic signals operated by the Boston Transportation Department.

“We watch for things out of the ordinary,” Burgess said. “We can zoom in and turn them and so forth so that also helps us to know what is going on.”

The TMC also responds to constituent complaints that are recorded through the Boston 311 app and phone center. Residents can report illegal parking, blocked traffic or broken traffic equipment.

The center also checks construction contracts to learn whether construction sites have a permit to do the work and at what times they are authorized to be active. If the sites are active during what should be down time, the TMC can dispatch law enforcement officials to halt the construction.

A 2010 Boston Traffic Department report that studied the benefits of retiming and re-phasing traffic signals in the Back Bay showed that proper design; operation and maintenance of traffic signals can yield economic and social benefits by reducing delay, vehicle emissions, and fuel consumption while improving safety.

If the traffic is bumper to bumper, adjusting the lights will not be of much help because there is nowhere for the flow of cars to go.

Travel patterns evolve over time. Traffic flow in the Seaport District has changed in the past year or so because of new development. In response, the TMC has adjusted the timing of the lights in the district.

“It’s a gradual process but, yeah, it keeps getting busier and busier,” said Burgess.

How does Burgess, personally, deal with the traffic during his commute? He takes the commuter rail to work.

“I just don’t see the point in adding to the congestion,” he said.