1. Transport
November 17, 2022

Bobby Lee

Transit signal prioritisation: Bring riders back to mass transit

Public transit has given way to cars since the pandemic, worsening existing traffic. But Transit Signal Priority (TSP) could be the solution.

There’s no doubt that we’re getting back in our cars. Post-Covid studies have shown that we fled from public transit to the safety of our own cars to avoid Covid transmission, but haven’t returned. Our sudden reliance on private vehicles coincides with our insatiable appetite for building new roads or widening existing ones. 

Transit Signal Priority helping to alleviate traffic
Can transit signal priority reduce travel times and fuel consumption in congested cities? (Photo by Heather Shimmin/Shutterstock)

These two trends coinciding may not seem alarming at first, but many drivers may not be familiar with the effects of induced demand. If we build it, they will come, or, more lanes mean more traffic. 

The US’s 100 largest urban areas added 30,511 new lane-miles of roads between 1993 and 2017, according to a report by Transportation for America, a 42% increase during that time contrasted against a population growth of only (32%). In other words, we’re needlessly building more roads than necessary for our level of population growth. And despite more roadways now being created, traffic congestion (measured in hours per day) increased by 144% within that same period. And never mind the fact that each lane-mile of roadway costs between $4.2m and $15.4m to build and an estimated $24,000 a year to maintain, with $500bn spent on expanding roads between 1993 and 2017.

It’s an untenable situation and we can’t keep building roads. Yet, we can’t seem to persuade drivers to get back onto public transit, which would represent an easy way to quickly reduce traffic congestion.

[Read more: What Cleveland’s property growth tells us about the value of rapid-transit lines]

Is it possible there’s a better, smarter and more cost-effective way to ultimately tame our nation’s traffic problems? The answer might be found in sophisticated, artificial intelligence-based technology that’s designed to be embedded in our current, everyday traffic infrastructure.

Advanced transportation systems being implemented

Transit riders want three things – faster and more consistent travel times, frequent service and a reliable transit system. Transit signal priority (TSP) is one of the easiest ways local transit agencies can provide all three desires, but it requires that agencies adopt a holistic view of how to better serve their ridership and use the right kind of priority solution.

Legacy TSP systems haven’t evolved much from their introduction in the 1960s. Namely, being an expensive transmitter on buses that flash an infrared strobe light to a receiver installed on a traffic signal mast arm, much like a TV remote control. The cost to install this hardware on both signals and buses is quite high and requires regular maintenance and calibration to guarantee consistent operation. Not to mention the fact that it’s hard to tell if the system is actually working or audit its performance. 

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Next-gen TSP represents the silver bullet that transit agencies are looking for – predictive, ETA-based green lights provided well in advance of the bus’s arrival. These systems utilise the power of cloud computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to better read movement, roadways and ridership patterns.

By melding new technological advancements with proven strategies, transit agencies can reduce travel times by 20%, reduce fuel usage by 14%, and reduce bus emissions by 12% according to a recent report. Communities that invest in next-gen solutions, like TSP, can benefit from having smarter infrastructure that adapts to real-time traffic conditions instead of being stuck with statically programmed infrastructure that quickly becomes ill-suited to the dynamic nature of traffic.

[Read more: Smart junctions for a smart future: How AI is transforming our roads]

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