Out of Sync Candidates

Out of Sync Candidates

Since I’ve done a couple of pretty serious posts already, I thought I’d give everyone a break and end the week on a lighter note by taking a quick peek at a few candidate websites and quotes and see what they say about traffic light synchronization in Austin:

Margie Burciaga:

“Retiming traffic lights is a matter of purchasing new software that allows for multiple timers for traffic light patterns.”

Katrina Daniel:

“Find solutions to traffic congestion that include mass transit that is more efficient, not more expensive and synchronize traffic signals.”

Robert Thomas:

“Synchronize the lights throughout the city, and especially on our high volume roadways, to increase traffic flow”

Chris Hoerster:

“First let’s do the simple thing of synchronizing our traffic lights throughout the city.  Make traffic flow.  This can be adjusted throughout the day as traffic needs change and people are moving in different directions.  Our leadership has purposefully fought this to get the rail they so desperately believe we want.”

I was surprised to see so many candidates list traffic light synchronization as something that we need to do in Austin.  If you have done much driving in Austin, particularly if you’ve spent much time downtown, it’s hard to imagine how you could have missed the fact that many streets have synchronized lights. Not all of them, of course, but a lot of them.

Even if you somehow didn’t notice the synchronization yourself, it’s difficult to imagine how any of these candidates could list it as one of their top issues, particularly when there are so many articles about Austin’s traffic light systems just a google search away. Even if Google isn’t your thing, perhaps ask the city about their traffic light system before you slap something on your website about traffic light synchronization being one of your priorities. Or, perhaps ask someone who’s lived here a while – there has been some sort of light synchronization system going back to the 1970’s.

Several other candidates also had statements about traffic light synchronization or signal re-timing, but the statements could have been interpreted to mean that the candidate just wanted  to improve the existing synchronization system, whereas the quotes listed above are unambiguous – it’s clear that the candidates listed above were unaware that Austin already does what they’re proposing.

While this is kind of amusing, it is also kind of  odd that so many candidates would list this topic without any research into it whatsoever (apparently).  It’s almost like they cribbed off each other’s issue lists or candidate questionnaires or something. Heck, Austin just upgraded its system a few months ago (ie during this election cycle) – you would think some of these folks would have spotted one of the articles about it. In the grand scheme of things, this is a pretty minor screw up by these candidates, but worth noting nevertheless.

Just in case you’re interested in knowing more about Austin’s traffic light synchronization systems over the years, I have provided some links below. You might be surprised to learn that full automated traffic light timing adjustments and synchronization hasn’t really been viable until fairly recently due to the processing power required, complexity, and humans reacting in unpredictable ways. Most of the systems today use a simplified traffic model in order to process things in a cost-effective way. In reality, a lot of manual intervention is needed for just about every system. Pedestrian traffic, wrecks, special events, construction – they all contribute to messing up the best laid synchronization plans. However, improvements are coming quickly & real solutions are on the way.  Links:

A Chronicle article from 2000 with a lot of interesting information in it

A KXAN article from 3 weeks ago discussing our new system and some of its new features

A very interesting Austin Council presentation from about a decade ago that talks about how many lights are sync’d, why all streets can’t be sync’d in all directions, various misconceptions, and so on

A current city webpage from the folks that run the traffic management systems for the city. This page gives performance numbers for the past year on light retimings and so forth, as well as their job responsibilities, including synchronization.

An article from August this year discussing some of the new system’s features

A GovTech article from July of this year covering MIT researchers who say they may have cracked the code on making an optimal city-wide automated smart traffic management system (basically what I suspect most people think cities have had for years already).




Dylan Tynan

Consultant, software developer, political wonk, etc.

Many years ago I worked for the Lee Cooke for Mayor campaign, but since then I have not worked for, nor given any money to, any political campaign.

Austin TX


  1. You need to talk to the Sierra Club (Roy Waley) and Bill Bunch. They were the ones who gave a presentation at the beginning of this election cycle that lead a lot of candidates to believe that traffic signal timing might be part of a traffic solution.

    Here’s a little tidbit for you. In the last week of early voting up through the Nov. 4th election, City staff were messing with traffic signal sequencing to intentionally cause longer than usual east-west delays off of major thoroughfares. The Capital Metro bus drivers knew all about it and figured it was to agitate drivers into voting for the Rail Prop. It didn’t work. LOL!

  2. Glad to have discovered your blog today.

    Among serious transportation analysts, light synchronization is a “nice to have”. It may make some people slightly happier but it has almost zero positive effect on the system’s throughput, and has some downsides as well. It’s one of a set of policies that we generally view as markers of a candidate who is either pandering or doesn’t know anything about transportation.

    • Yeah some of what you’re saying was echoed in that presentation to the city council from about a decade ago that i referenced. The one at http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=3463

      Not sure who made that though or where it came from. It seems to be missing an author or group or anything (at least that I noticed anyway).

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