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Help Desk: Stop-and-go traffic

City Howl is a Web site that allows citizens to post their raves or rants about city services. Every Wednesday, we publish highlights of our investigations into some of these problems.

THE PROBLEM: Driving home down Broad Street after a lacrosse game at La Salle, Carmen Verrilli found that he hit far fewer red lights north of City Hall than he did south of it.

In fact, it took the South Philadelphian almost as long to get down to Snyder Avenue from City Hall as it did to get to City Hall from Olney Avenue, despite the fact that the North Broad stretch of the trip is three times longer.

Verrilli wants to know why he hit more red lights in South Philly.

"It just seems that, driving in South Philly on Broad Street, the lights have no rhyme or reason," he complained.

THE EXPLANATION: Philadelphia has about 2,900 intersections with traffic lights, but only 900 of those are equipped with a computer system that allows the Streets Department to synchronize them with one another, according to Steve Buckley, deputy commissioner of the department.

The rest of the city's traffic lights run off mechanical clocks. When they fall out of sync, they have to be reset manually.

Buckley said some of the problems Verrilli and others complain about will be mitigated as the city installs more of the newer kind of traffic lights at intersections along selected commercial corridors throughout the city.

Spruce and Pine streets in Center City already have the new traffic lights, and over the next year, the Streets Department will be installing them along "mid-level arterial" roads, including Bustleton, Belmont and Oregon avenues.

The city also wants to install new software in the electronic traffic lights so that it can change traffic patterns throughout the day - giving preference, for instance, to drivers going to Center City in the morning and then coming back from Center City during the evening rush hour.

Police in South Philly now have to manually control traffic signals so that cars can clear out of the stadium complex after a big sporting event or concert.

Philadelphia will eventually control the lights in real time from a new traffic-operations center that the city is planning at the Municipal Services Building. Buckley hopes Philly's traffic center will be open in about two years. It could cost up to $2 million, but the city hopes to keep the price tag low by using existing infrastructure.

About 600 of the 900 intersections with the newer signal technology are connected by fiber-optic cables to the MSB and will ultimately tie into the traffic center, and the city plans to connect more over time. (The lights on South Broad are computerized, but not hooked up to the MSB yet.)

SO IS THIS GOOD NEWS? It is, but it's a little late: Although Philadelphia has the third-largest collection of streetlights of any city in America, it's the only one of the 10 largest cities to not have a traffic-operations center, according to Stan Platt, manager of transportation operations for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which is working with the city on developing a plan for the center.

By contrast, Los Angeles built a high-tech traffic-control system in 1984 to manage traffic around the Coliseum stadium for the Olympic Games. That was credited with reducing travel time by 13 percent and fuel consumption by 12.5 percent, according to a report by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

What's more, the installation of new traffic signals will be done on only a couple of corridors per year. Buckley said that only 50 to 100 intersections get the new technology "in a good year." (Remember, there are 2,900 signaled intersections in the city.)

In the meantime, Buckley said drivers can expect some improvements in fiscal 2011. The city has gotten a $500,000 grant from the Planning Commission to install a device on some mechanized lights that will help prevent them from falling out of sync (this is cheaper than installing the newer lights).

Even after all these improvements, however, there's only so much the city can do to reduce driver waiting times. Traffic lights are usually timed to give pedestrians enough time to cross intersections on side streets. As our population ages, the timing of red lights is being extended. The city used to assume pedestrians could travel 4 feet a second. Now, the number is down to 3.5.

Plus, allowing drivers to travel faster isn't always the only factor determining the city's traffic policy.

Cars have to share streets with pedestrians, bikes, buses and trolleys, and the city's Complete Streets policy is meant to take their needs into account, too. While going 40 mph gets people to their destinations faster, it also isn't a speed residents of a residential street want to see.

So, basically, Verrilli might see improvements over the next few years as traffic lights are retimed and new technology is installed. But the red lights he hit on his drive home might also be the inevitable result of the Streets Department's attempts to balance competing interests for a share of the road.

At this point, it's hard to tell.

Have a problem getting services from a city department, or an idea for a more effective way to get things done? Let us know about it at, or write City Howl, c/o the Daily News, 400 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19130.

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