Streamlining The Traffic Flow

June 6, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Before cursing the city’s traffic department next time a red light causes a backup, Pat Bush cautions people to remember it would be a lot worse without them.

Bush, Grand Rapids’ public works director, said the city’s traffic engineers are always working to find ways to make traffic flow easier.

“It’s a constant process,” he said. “We use various methods of monitoring traffic.”

Streets are monitored and evaluated on a rotating three-year cycle to determine traffic volume, speed and the number of cars and trucks that use the road. This information helps the traffic department determine what, if any, changes need to be made to the roadway.

Unless there is a new development, Bush said adding new traffic signals to an intersection is rare in the city limits of Grand Rapids, but in the new developments around the city there may be 10 to 12 new lights a year.

The Grand Rapids Traffic Department, which includes electric technicians, traffic engineers, a traffic systems programmer and a traffic systems administrator, handles traffic issues for all of Kent County and the eastern third of Ottawa County. Bush said it is economically sound for cities such as Walker, East Grand Rapids and Kentwood to be controlled by the Grand Rapids system.

“It does make things a lot easier when there’s one maintaining agency overseeing everything,” he said.

The existing traffic signals are constantly monitored and changed to ease the flow of traffic. Whether it’s alleviating a traffic delay caused by a detour or favoring south- or north-bound traffic during certain hours of the day, the signals can be changed to make traffic stay moving.

While most signals are preset and only change when there is a problem, Bush said there are signals that can coordinate with set plans by pushing a button. These plans could be for situations such as an event at Van Andel Arena, an accident on U.S. 131, or rush hour traffic.

There also are signals that are set on green until a pedestrian presses the walk button or a vehicle sets off the magnetic sensors cut into the road. The sensors in the right lane have a five to 10 second delay so if a vehicle were to approach the intersection and then make a right turn on a red light, the light would not change unnecessarily, Bush said. If the vehicle waits more than 10 seconds, the light would then change to accommodate it.

“The signal’s smart enough to do that on its own,” he said.

The signals have a control panel that monitors the voltage to each light to determine which signal is on, Bush said. If a signal has a situation where both lights turn green, the conflict monitor will shut the signal off to prevent accidents.

Though the nation’s traffic signal systems recently received a D- from the Federal Highway Administration, Bush said he thought Grand Rapids was better than 80 percent of comparable cities.

“I think our region overall is much better than that study portrayed,” he said. “That’s not to say there’s not a lot more that could be done and should be done.”

Bush said that when it comes to commuter delays, Grand Rapids is in good shape compared to other cities he has seen, such as Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles or Detroit.

“It could be better; it could be a lot worse,” he said.

With the growth of Grand Rapids and the surrounding municipalities, Bush said the traffic problems are going to become more complicated.

“We’ve grown,” he said. “People just haven’t realized with growth comes a cost.”

To deal with the changing traffic needs, Bush said the traffic department works with new construction and rebuilding roadways, as well as dealing with construction and detours. He said the department spends much of its time planning for major construction projects such as the S-curve in 2000 and the many smaller traffic projects that take place in the city.

Chris Zull, a Grand Rapids traffic engineer, said the public’s perception of traffic is one of the larger issues.

“I think it is perceived as a problem because traffic always is perceived as a problem,” he said. “This is heaven compared to Detroit.”

Despite a negative outlook, Zull said the public’s opinion is important to the department.

“We work with the community to try and incorporate their concerns into the design,” he said.

Most of the public’s concerns have to do with on-street parking, pedestrian safety and travel speeds, Zull said.

Bush said the traffic department is always dealing with new technology, which changes as quickly as computer technology.

“Every time you see an advance in things like that, you’ll see an advance in traffic technology,” he said.

One of the big changes that Bush is implementing in traffic signal technology is replacing the incandescent bulbs in the signals with light-emitting diodes technology. LED technology lasts longer than incandescent bulbs, which usually have a life of 12 to 16 months, and use 80 percent less electricity. The LED technology comes with a five-year warranty, and Bush said the department began installing the bulbs three to four years ago and has not had to change them yet.

Though the bulbs are too expensive to replace all the signals in one broad sweep, Bush said they have been replacing the old bulbs whenever maintenance on a light is required.

With unplanned events such as accidents, planned events such as construction, new technology and changing needs of the city, Bush said working on traffic never ends.

“The pieces are in constant motion and sometimes it’s a challenge to keep up,” he said.    

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