Editorial: Traffic light system must be improved

Delays from short-phasing traffic lights contribute to congestion that extracts a heavy cost in wasted petrol and harmful emissions. Photo / APN
Delays from short-phasing traffic lights contribute to congestion that extracts a heavy cost in wasted petrol and harmful emissions. Photo / APN

A conference at the Aotea Centre heard last week that traffic lights would be redundant one day thanks to interconnected fleets of driverless cars that "talk" to each other. This, however, was surely of limited comfort to the great majority of the Aucklanders in the audience. They have an immediate problem because of the many shortcomings in the city's traffic light system. That is the legacy of under-investment which continues to this day in terms of funding for research designed to improve matters.

The obvious implication is that frustrated motorists must simply put up with a substandard situation. Yet on any number of grounds, this is a problem that transport authorities should be striving to solve. Auckland's geography and lack of public transport do not make this easy. Unlike many cities, where motorists are able to go through long successions of green lights, Auckland's traffic does not move largely in one direction in the morning and the opposite at night. It has loadings in several directions that are often similar.

Nonetheless, that is an insufficient explanation for the many flaws in the system.

Experts point to the widely used Sydney Co-ordinated Adaptive Management System (Scats) being implemented on the cheap almost 45 years ago, with too few sensors to measure traffic demand accurately.

To compound that problem, little has been done since to improve it, while the number of cars on Auckland's roads has soared. Further complications arose from Auckland's former local-body structure, which sponsored unco-ordinated lights and conflicted priorities.

The outcome is the woes that afflict motorists daily and prompt a steady stream of letters of complaint to this newspaper. Delays from short-phasing traffic lights contribute to congestion that extracts a heavy cost in wasted petrol and harmful emissions, with an inevitable response in driver attitude. Red-light running is the most dangerous consequence when those behind the wheel become not prepared to sit patiently at lights. The increase in the practice tells its own tale.

The lights can, in fact, be programmed as a network, with perhaps a dozen intersections being synchronised. But the Scats software has limitations and operators must constantly tweak the lights. There are, however, just two of them to monitor the entire network of 763 light-controlled intersections and 88 motorway on-ramp signals and override the programmed phasing if necessary. If there are malfunctions in the aged system or other unexpected events, it is easy to envisage the result. The staffing available at the Joint Traffic Operations Central Centre in Takapuna to address this says much about the priority accorded to providing motorists with a less stop-go experience.

So, too, does the Auckland Council's tight budget for system improvement. Traffic engineers say they are hamstrung by the lack of funding for research even though improvements to the Scats programme to, for example, measure queue lengths better should be a priority. The Auckland Council seems more inclined to concentrate on providing better information on congestion and alternative routes, with more electronic signs and website information for drivers to access on-car infotainment screens.

That smacks of the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Transport authorities need to be far more active in improving the Scats programme. Any funding for research would be money well spent. If the present situation deteriorates - a strong probability given the increasing number of vehicles and plans for still more lights - they will be spending money anyway on red-light cameras and other measures. They may also have to explain an increased number of pedestrian deaths. Doing essentially nothing to address the fundamental reason for Aucklanders' frustration cannot be an option.

- NZ Herald

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