This is how the city manages traffic lights — but not for much longer
The cars had begun stacking up at North Washington and Causeway streets, so Wilson Aleman knew he would have to make some tweaks near Government Center.
Maybe take a second off the red-light timer here? Or add a few at the light at the ramp off Route 1A near New Chardon Street, where traffic arrives from East Boston?
“You have to balance it,” said Aleman, a senior traffic engineer at Boston’s Traffic Management Center, during a recent Wednesday rush hour. “Every second is precious.”
For decades, city engineers have managed Boston’s traffic woes from a seventh-floor office in City Hall, scanning hundreds of cameras at the city’s stoplights and manually attempting to ease the logjams.
Not for much longer. City officials say they’re upgrading Boston’s traffic management system, and soon the second-by-second micromanagement of the stoplights could be handled by an algorithm. Computers will measure the city’s traffic patterns and systematically adjust the timing of traffic lights throughout a neighborhood. One traffic signal will be automatically changed with the intent to influence another, and another, down the street.
“It will be more intuitive,” said Gina Fiandaca, commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department. “It’s more of an adaptive system that will allow a rhythmic-based algorithm to make the adjustment.”
The program is still in its design stage as engineers study the city’s overall traffic patterns. Officials said they cannot determine how much the project will cost until the design is complete.
The software will eventually be test-piloted in neighborhoods such as the Seaport District, where evening traffic can come to a frustrating standstill as cars attempt to squeeze onto Interstate 93.
The city has already partnered with the real-time traffic and navigation app Waze to measure traffic. As Waze reroutes drivers around a construction site or accident, engineers analyze those logjams to manipulate nearby stop signals.
Chris Osgood, the city’s chief of streets, transportation, and sanitation, said the reassessment of the traffic center is part of a Go Boston 2030 plan, in which residents stated their priorities for more reliable roads in a city notorious for its gridlock. The goal is to better move traffic along, reduce fender-benders caused by drivers trying to make it through the intersection before the light changes, and address safety concerns in general, for drivers as well as bicyclists and pedestrians.
“It’s not so much about the signals, as it is about the streets,” Osgood said. “We try to balance all the needs at the intersection to the best of our ability.”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh highlighted the program in his State of the City address in January, describing his “plan to bring cutting-edge traffic-light technology to Boston’s busiest streets.”
John Davis, a traffic engineer and former official with the Institute of Transportation Engineers, said adaptive signal control has been implemented in a range of communities, from Portland, Ore., to Oakland County, Mich.
But each city has its own traffic needs, based not only on cars but also pedestrians, he said. That’s why the design stage is so important, Davis said.
“You have to look at the characteristics of a city,” he said. But, “The advantage of the adaptive system is . . . it can respond quicker to divert that traffic than a staff person might be able to. It can be ready and respond in a specific way.”
Until that happens, engineers, such as Aleman, will continue to manually focus on monitors to measure traffic at major intersections and move vehicles along, such as the crowd of cars that Wednesday at the North Causeway intersection and the Leverett Circle Connector.
“As you can see, it’s a busy intersection,” said Aleman, a 30-year veteran of the department, as he examined one red light, and the signal behind it, at the Lechmere train stop.
Over the years, the engineers have learned exactly which parts of the city get clogged when.
The roadways within the Longwood Medical Center also tend to bottleneck, though the peak times there tend to be later in the mornings, when most people have appointments — and more so on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Roxbury Crossing can be jammed morning and evening. Anytime there is a big Celtics or Bruins game, the North End and the area around TD Garden can be packed.
With ongoing construction at the former Casey Overpass in Jamaica Plain, that neighborhood is frequently at a standstill, the engineers say.
Even under the new system, such civil engineers as Aleman will still be called upon in certain traffic situations. For example, on a recent rush-hour morning, Ashley Biggins, a traffic engineer for four years, called parking monitors when she saw a bus take too long to drop tourists off by Faneuil Hall.
Not long after, she observed two delivery trucks double-park on Court Street near Government Center, where they planned to unload. Minutes after she made a phone call to a street-level monitor, the trucks were gone.
“Maybe that will start to push things through,” she said, shifting her attention to a new screen.
Biggins lives in Jamaica Plain, and Aleman lives in the South End. In their travels through the city, both said, they monitor traffic signal cameras and sensors that detect how many cars are passing, to make sure they are working.
Neither of them drives in to City Hall, however. They take public transportation.