Sunday, June 26, 2022

Method to the madness: NCDOT explains what goes into timing Wilmington’s traffic signals

Does it seem like some traffic lights in Wilmington take a lot longer than others? Well, it turns out, you're probably right --- but there is a method to the system (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)
Does it seem like some traffic lights in Wilmington take a lot longer than others? Well, it turns out, you’re probably right — but there is a method to the system (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — Let’s face it, sitting in traffic in Wilmington is just part of life — from the tourists in the summer to school busses and morning commuters in the offseason.

But one of the most frustrating parts of driving can be getting stuck at a red light that just seems to take forever — and in Wilmington, while forever might be hyperbolic, there are some signals that take much longer than most people would expect.

So what goes into setting the times of traffic light signals?

No set regulations

As it turns out, there are no set regulations the North Carolina Department of Transportation has to follow.

“Our division traffic engineer says, there are not explicit regulations for traffic signal timing. The selected timing is based on the location and volumes of traffic,” NDOCT Spokeswoman Lauren Haviland said.

“If it is a standalone signal, there are maximum and minimum green times programmed for each movement.  If it is a signal within a coordinated system, the timing is also affected by the dynamics of signals along a corridor.  The goal of coordinated signal systems is to reduce travel time on the mainline and keep traffic moving as smoothly as possible,” she said.

But it’s not just up to the NCDOT to maintain signals and set their times, the City of Wilmington actually maintains signals around town as well. The City of Wilmington owns 41 traffic signals in the city and maintains 182 signals on behalf of the NCDOT through a contract.

So can anything be done to adjust the timing of the traffic signals in Wilmington? Well, residents can submit requests to the city to change signal times online by submitting information by using this form or by phone at 910.341.4676.

But simply submitting a request does not guarantee a signal time will change.

Keeping traffic flowing

The intersection of Market Street and Middle Sound Loop Road (Port City Daily/File)
The intersection of Market Street and Middle Sound Loop Road (Port City Daily/File)

One stoplight in particular, at the intersection of Market Street and Middle Sound Loop Road is one of these city-maintained signals. On Monday, Port City Daily measured the wait time for drivers trying to turn north onto Market Street at more than 4 minutes.

Drivers have been observed running the red light in order to avoid a nearly 10-minute wait time to turn onto Market Street.

Why the long wait? Well, in order to keep traffic moving along main corridors NCDOT along with the City of Wilmington will make the wait time at periphery streets longer than that of busier ones.

“This is a signal within a coordinated system, so timing is also affected by the dynamics of signals along a corridor.  The goal of coordinated signal systems is to reduce travel time on the mainline and keep traffic moving as smoothly as possible,” Haviland said.

“The further explanation is based on the specific location of this intersection, the signal at Market Street at Middle Sound Loop Road takes the ‘full brunt’ of all the traffic on Market Street heading from downtown and northern points in the city/county, plus all the traffic heading up Military Cutoff Road from all southern points in the city/county,” she continued.

While it can be aggravating to drivers stuck for even one signal cycle, it is necessary to keep a steady flow of traffic.

“Middle Sound Loop Road is where the two major traffic streams converge, which is why this traffic signal provides a cycle length exactly twice as long as the adjacent signals.  It is trying to process ‘main street’ traffic from two different ‘main streets’ (Market Street and Military Cutoff Road).  If this is not done, traffic would regularly backup past the intersections of Market Street at Gordon Road and Military Cutoff Road at Gordon Road most of the day. Even with this timing strategy, the evening traffic backs up to Gordon Road on both Market Street and Military Cutoff Road,” she said.

But all is not lost: the NCDOT is currently working to address the congestion along the corridor with the Military Cutoff Extension project.

“One major point to make is that this excessive amount of traffic is why the Military Cutoff Road Extension Project is being constructed. This major road project will help disperse traffic to the northeastern points in the county and beyond.  It is intended to relieve the excessive traffic volumes along Market Street by providing an alternate route to the northeast. After the project is open to traffic, the signal at Market Street at Middle Sound Loop Road is expected to be revised to operate at the same cycle length as adjacent traffic signals,” Haviland said.


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