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Self-organized traffic lights give better flow

A self-organized control system for traffic lights could improve traffic flow by up to 95%, says a leading specialist in modelling and simulation.

Heavy investments in traffic light systems were made in the 1960s and ‘70s, so most systems today are antiquated, according to Professor Dirk Helbing of Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH Zürich). “Some 40 to 50 years ago when traffic volume was lighter, the main job of traffic light systems was to manage peak traffic during the day. The lights were centrally controlled, and not programmed to adjust in real time,” says Helbing.

Helbing proposes a decentralized system to make travel time more predictable, though traffic light sequences less so. It combines two components. A local strategy to optimize the flow of traffic at one light of an intersection and a stablizing strategy which kicks in to clear traffic when it reaches a critical threshold.

“It turns out that the two strategies properly combined perform better than today’s traffic light controls at all traffic volumes,” says Helbing. The combination of two inferior strategies can perform much better - if we do it right.”

Simulation tests show the combined strategies work well. With non-periodic - not cyclically repeated - traffic lights releasing long traffic queues, travel time even becomes more predictable. Flow is kept stable, and fuel consumption and emissions are reduced.

November 19, 2007

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