Smart Traffic Lights – What Is It and Is It the Right Time?

‘Smart traffic lights’ may sound like a thing of the future, but it’s already here. It saves lives, time, money, and the environment.

11. June 2021
9 minutes
author: Adam Petrek
Smart Traffic Lights – What Is It and Is It the Right Time?

The ASCT or the Adaptive Signal Control Technology has been around for quite some time. It’s a traffic light system that adapts to traffic rather than continuing on a single set timer. The innovations of the last decade can help us drastically reduce travel times, costs, carbon emissions as well as accidents to save lives. It might already be in your city, and you don’t even know about it. We pretty much kept on using the same traffic signal technology over the past 100 years, and it might be time for a change.

The Birth of Traffic Lights

The first traffic light was born long before cars joined the traffic. It was installed in front of the House of Parliament in London on December 10, 1868, to control horse carriages and help pedestrians cross safely.

At first, they were just manually controlled and gas-lit. An amazing invention but not very safe. They would occasionally explode and hurt the police officer operating them.

On August 5, 1914, Cleveland, Ohio, installed the first electric light, proposed by the American police officer Lester Wire. Besides having a buzzer instead of the yellow light, they already worked on the same principle as the modern lights.

Let’s jump just a few years later. It’s 1920, in Detroit, Michigan, and William Potts just introduced the world to 4way traffic light, and the yellow light replaced the buzzer.

Hundred years later, in 2021, most of the traffic lights are still pretty much the same. One could even ask a question, why change it? Well, let’s look at the benefits.

The Good Stuff

ASCT companies promise us lower travel time, fewer accidents, better air quality, and crazy money savings. It sounds beautiful but is it true?

Many of our traffic lights are already ‘smart’ to an extent. Meaning, they often have a few presets and switch between them, based on the time of day. It’s better than nothing, but it’s far from a perfect reflection of the current traffic situation. What if something unexpected happens, like an accident, roadblock, fallen tree, or a sudden weather condition change? The ASCT will adapt the traffic immediately, and the city staff can also override it remotely and adjust it based on camera feeds.  Even when the traffic is business as usual, the adaptive signal control technology is supposed to deliver vast improvements.

We all felt like the whole universe was against us as we caught every single red light possible, or the annoyance of waiting forever on a red light with nobody crossing. The ASCT makes this a thing of the past.

For example, in 2017, Monroeville had immediately reduced the travel time by 20% and vehicle stops by 87% after installing ASCT. Troy, Michigan, managed to halve their collisions with serious injuries, literally saving people’s lives. In West Des Moines, Iowa, the number of crashes decreased by 38%. This shows that smart traffic lights are not just for big cities with constant congestions, but they can make a massive difference in small cities as well.

Let’s Talk Money

In 2017, the average American driver had spent over $700 a year due to congestions. Back then, The Center for Economics and Business Research had foretold that the costs would rise by 50% over the next 15 years. Just three years later, the costs had almost doubled.

Based on the 2020 Global Traffic Scorecard by INRIX, in 2019, an average American lost 99 hours a year waiting in traffic due to congestions, which had cost them $1,374. These numbers were, of course, much higher in bigger cities.

Now imagine an ideal world with no congestions. You would gain well over four days of your life each year and save those $1,374 on more useful stuff than waiting in traffic. It’s also important to point out that these numbers had been steadily rising every year.

Annual Fuel Cost per Driver (Source)

In 2020, the pandemic caused a massive drop in wasted time and fuel. The average time spent in congestions had dropped to only 26 hours, which saved the whole country $51 billion and $980 per driver, as the average driver had spent $394 on congestions. It would be fantastic if we could achieve these results without paying such a horrible price. As the pandemic situation improves and the traffic increases, it is expected to return to the trend of growing congestions and wasted costs. By reducing these, we substantially lower carbon emissions to protect our environment and improve the air we breathe.

The travel time, costs, and emissions reductions are fantastic, but what I find the most attractive is the high reduction of accidents. Our lives are priceless. I am sure that all this is something every citizen would appreciate and love their city for it.

One could ask if the ASCT is so game-changing, why doesn’t everybody already have it, right? The number of ASCT solutions is constantly growing, but none of them is for free. Furthermore, each one is different with its own benefits and flaws. The cities don’t have unlimited resources, workforce, or time. Each city has to prioritize based on its specific needs.

There are many costs to consider. Besides the initial cost, there are training and maintenance costs. At first, every city should determine its needs, issues, and objectives and choose the vendor accordingly. The companies can differ based on their hardware and software needs, the detection type and placement, and of course, the costs.

The price could range from $30,000 to $65,000 per intersection, depending on the vendor and the technology already in place. On the other hand, there are several grants available to help reduce the costs. They are worth looking into to save cities’ resources.

Yes, People Want It

Already countless cities of all sizes across the United States had applied smart traffic systems on their intersections. You can use the map of ASCT installed in the U.S. by the Laboratory for Adaptive Traffic Operations & Management at Florida Atlantic University. You can see which cities are already using the smart traffic lights, which vendor they chose, and then contact them regarding their experience.

We want to get back our time, we want safe roads, and not worry about our children crossing the road. We don’t want to be annoyed by red lights when there is no one around, and we don’t want to waste our money on just sitting in a car and waiting. We want to breathe cleaner air and we definitely want to reduce car accidents.

The benefits of ASCT systems are undeniable, and I firmly believe that it’s the right time to improve the traffic on our main intersections. For the best ASCT vendor, check out  The Best Smart Traffic Technology.