A Demanding Time: A closer look at how one city is working to meet demands

November 04, 2007

Lombard Street in downtown Baltimore is full of activity on a typical weekday afternoon.

Similar to many large metropolitan cities across the country, Baltimore, Maryland, has recaptured the feel of a vibrant and exciting city. As businesses return to the downtown after wandering to the suburbs and young professionals eagerly invest in redeveloping downtown neighborhoods, life flows back into a city that has steadily declined over the past 40 years. Not to much surprise, the city’s antiquated signal system is straining to meet the challenges of the higher demand generated by the increasing number of cars, transit vehicles, and pedestrians.

The City of Baltimore is administering a major overhaul and upgrade of its signal system. To start the effort, the City replaced 1,300 signal controllers and cabinets. A new traffic management center, in the final stages of construction, will manage nearly half of the controllers that operate in Baltimore’s Central Business District.

The City’s effort continues as it develops and implements new signal timing plans, the first major study conducted in Baltimore in nearly 20 years. During these two decades, employment and population centers have changed and travel patterns have shifted, intensifying the need for the upgrades.

Development of new signal timing in downtown Baltimore poses a number of unique challenges. Facets of the Baltimore community depend heavily on transit as their only means of transportation. The key challenge is balancing increased mobility of cars into and through downtown against the needs of the transit-dependent community and pedestrians who contribute to the vibrant life of the city. An example is the light rail line that runs from north to south across the city, cutting across four major corridors that move traffic across town. Favoring one mode impacts the others. Striking that balance is important for the entire Baltimore community.

State-of-the-art techniques and technology are being used to find that balance. The City is using Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment to measure and compare the performance of the City’s original signal timing to the new timings. GPS can also measure signal delay for cars and transit vehicles. In addition, microsimulation models are being used to help develop the timing parameters, helping engineers understand the operations of the traffic signals in the complicated roadway network.

At the end of the process, the City of Baltimore will have a state-of-the-art traffic signal system that will be efficient and flexible enough to meet the demands of the city’s workers, residents, and visitors.

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