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More Toronto traffic lights may soon be in sync

Published February 22, 2013
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Through clenched teeth and with one foot heavy on the brake, it can sometimes seem as though the string of red lights along Toronto’s major streets are conspiring to slow traffic to a stop-start crawl.

Some relief may soon be on the way, as Toronto develops a plan to better synchronize traffic lights on a number of “priority corridors” over the next five years.

But in a city where commute times are among the lengthiest in North America, some say a more comprehensive solution is long overdue.

“I respect that they [city staff] have done everything they can with the resources that they’ve got,” said Councillor Josh Matlow, who has for years advocated for more effective signal coordination. “The reality, though, is they don’t have anything near what they need to actually make this system work as well as it should.”

According to Myles Currie, a transportation services director who oversees the city’s traffic management centre, all of Toronto’s 2,200 traffic signals are capable of providing synchronization.

The problem, however, is that over time this coordination can break down due to aging technology, new residential development and changes on particular roads, such as construction that reduces the number of lanes.

“There’s room for improvement. Particular routes have had a lot of changes that we need to take into account,” Currie said.

To address this, Currie said his team is in the midst of upgrading the technology used to control traffic signals at each intersection, and converting from telephone line communication to wireless, which is more reliable. This work, which costs from $10,000 to $15,000 per intersection, is about two-thirds complete, he said.

Meanwhile, the traffic management centre has been conducting reviews of the coordination of signals on individual streets. Each review, which takes into account the speed and flow of traffic, as well as time of day, pedestrians and turning lanes, requires anywhere from six weeks to several months per road to complete.

Not including the cost of technology upgrades, last year the city spent about $450,000 reviewing and resetting the signal coordination of 114 intersections along Kennedy Rd., Bloor St., Richmond St. and Adelaide St.

Over the next five years, Currie said staff will do the same along a number of other “priority corridors,” such as Leslie St., Eglinton Ave., Weston Rd., Avenue Rd. and Yonge St.

Although the specific roads and timeline for implementation have yet to be determined, Currie estimated the project will involve about 900 intersections, and cost a minimum of $3.6 million, excluding technology upgrades.

“Gradually, you will see improvement throughout the city as we review our priority corridors,” he said.

Change cannot come soon enough for Toronto resident Ian Chamandy, who said he is “eternally frustrated” by the red lights he so often encounters.

About 15 years ago, Chamandy said he began casually “testing” signal coordination on major routes about 15 years ago, accelerating to the speed limit at every intersection. Almost without fail, the next light would turn red.

“You’ve got these thoroughfares that are important rush hour arteries … and it’s just stop, stop, stop,” he said. “In Toronto, there’s actually an incentive to speed if there’s no traffic, because it’s the only way to get green lights.”

Matlow, who sits on the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, received so many complaints from residents in his midtown district that he requested a staff report “on the possible implementation of Synchronized Traffic Signals” in September 2011.

Currie said he expects to report back to public works on the issue this spring — about a year and half after council approved Matlow’s request.

Matlow said he hopes council will devote the resources required to expand the work that is already underway.

“The city needs to work together,” he said. “It doesn’t mean necessarily everywhere, every light, but there needs to be a smooth transition otherwise it’s not going to work.”

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