Last year, voters approved bond money for infrastructure upgrades, and the largest chunk of those Renew Atlanta funds will help modernize and "optimize" traffic technology.
To see what that means, I go for a drive with Renew Atlanta general manager Faye DiMassimo and GDOT engineer Kathy Zahul.
We drive down North Avenue in Midtown, one of the first corridors scheduled for an upgrade. Once in the car, DiMassimo explains, “Signal optimization simply means that we're making sure that the timing of the signals is moving traffic through the corridor in an efficient way.”
That includes cars -- but also bikes and pedestrians.
The last major systemwide traffic upgrade in Atlanta was for the 1996 Olympics. Zahul says since the technology is old, operators have to manually program the lights on site.
That's OK for planned events like rush hour but not for unplanned ones like accidents. “The signals really don't know what's going on right now,” Zahul says. “They probably ... couldn't accept that input because of the age of the equipment.”
Think of the signals like old-school flip phones. If you want internet access and the latest apps, you need a smartphone. And, if you want the latest traffic technology, you need new lights. The problem is the price for each new light starts at about $100,000.
To see what that will buy, we park and walk to the corner of North Avenue and Peachtree Street.
Here, DiMassimo notices a car running a red light. “You're going to see people not making risky moves, risky turns or speeding up to get through the intersection,” she says.
The new lights are supposed to help traffic move in efficient packs with fewer stragglers trying to speed through red lights. That will be done by coordinating with cameras and metal detectors to see cars, bikes and pedestrians. The lights will communicate with each other to prevent backups, and operators will be able to program them remotely.
The lights won't solve every traffic problem, but they may help.