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Traffic Lights: There's a Better Way

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Too many red lights can increase commuting times substantially.

MIT researchers have developed a system for timing traffic lights that minimizes commuting times.

Credit: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a means of computing the optimal timings for city stoplights that can significantly reduce drivers' average travel times.

The researchers used the new system to study traffic patterns in Lausanne, Switzerland. They say their optimization process can time traffic lights in large urban areas while accounting for the complex and diverse reactions of individual drivers.

The researchers examined detailed simulations of Lausanne's traffic and found the timings produced by the system reduced the average travel time for commuters by 22 percent. The simulation-based optimization model, which aims to provide a detailed vehicle-level analysis, combines the accuracy of high-resolution models with the computational efficiency of low-resolution traffic models.

"Such a model can validate our active traffic-management system in Manhattan, and allow us to fine-tune our processes and improve the network operation," says Mohamad Talas with New York City's Department of Transportation. "I believe that this approach is economically viable, with cost savings for any jurisdiction that needs to assess and improve traffic conditions for a large area of the transportation network."

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