The next time you’re stuck at a red light, imagine trying to manage more than 100 traffic signals around the clock. That’s what Jim Herman, transportation services coordinator for the city of Sparks, and his team do on the job. And each day has the same goal: to move the most amount of motorists and pedestrians as safely as possible through each intersection.
With advances in engineering, workers can calculate how many cars cross a busy intersection and when a light should change. By relying on censoring equipment and traffic flow software, they can determine which roads are the busiest and pinpoint the worst traffic times.
On a typical day, Herman evaluates traffic-light signals in the area and makes sure they are all working properly. He also programs school zone flashers to operate correctly. Herman, a University of Nevada, Reno graduate, earned his degree in mechanical engineering. He also worked as a 911 operator before applying for a job as a traffic engineering technician.
During a recent interview, he recalled an incident on McCarran Boulevard. About five years ago the central computer that controlled signals at intersections on McCarran Boulevard from Prater Way to Glendale Avenue broke down. Soon callers complained about why it took about 45 minutes to get through that area.
Traveling that route now takes less than five minutes.
“At that time we had a centralized computer system,” Herman said. “It would tell everything out there what to do. But today all we have to do is make sure the time of day is correct, and everything in the unit is controlled by itself. I don’t even have to talk to it anymore.”
But lining up traffic each day so that cars can drive in different directions is a challenge, especially when there’s not enough room on the road.
Herman said adding more lanes to freeways and intersections can be costly. Also, some residents oppose building more roads. So, the solution, he said, is to maintain and improve traffic signals to accommodate the growing region. A
The population of Sparks has more than doubled since the 1970s. Now, Herman said he gets calls from California transplants saying, “I don’t live in the Bay Area anymore. I came here to get away from traffic. Why am I dealing with it now?’”
When he receives a call about a traffic light problem, he dispatches a signal technician to investigate. The repair person will determine if the sensor units were cut or dug up. The push button can also break or the equipment can stop communicating from a loss of power.
That’s why Herman and his crew are constantly monitoring and updating all of the city’s traffic signals for any type of flaw. The Pyramid ramp on Interstate 80 and the nearby crossing at Victorian Square are the most difficult intersections to get through if signals have problems, he revealed.
“They are all tied together like one giant, high-speed intersection. People are going through there at about 35 mph. There are also about three lanes coming off the freeway. On top of that it’s at an angle, so it’s not your typical intersection.”
He added that most of the off-ramps pose the biggest problems because of the high volume of traffic coming off the freeway and flowing into the intersections.
Still, there are times when the traffic lights are working correctly, but the light stays red forever it seems.
“It’s just a perception about the length of time,” he said.
“I can’t think of one light around here that is more than three minutes long.”
He added that today’s traffic light technology is far more efficient than it was 10 years ago.
Still, he said that traffic signal technology has a long way to go. Herman said he’s looking forward to self-driving cars of the future.
“Eventually, self-driving cars will be on the roads, and they will be able to talk and correspond to the traffic signals. This sounds pretty exciting even though it might put some of us out of work.”