In early October a power outage in Minneapolis threw the city’s central traffic-signal control system into disarray. Lights at various intersections lost much of their coordination, with some lights quickly changing color, leading to intense frustration among drivers and not a few complaints. The confusion underscored the general antiquity of the city’s traffic control system, which has been updated, but never overhauled, since it was first installed back in 1974.
The traffic situation in Minneapolis isn’t pretty. The 2011 Urban Mobility Report ranked the Twin Cities third worst among large cities in annual delay per commuter, at about 45 total hours. Of course a number of factors contribute to city congestion, but the decades-old traffic control system in Minneapolis certainly isn’t helping. Neither is the city’s tight budget: in the recent past there has been enough money only to upgrade parts of the system piecemeal.
Over the next two years all that will change. With the help of several federal grants, Minneapolis will reconfigure its entire traffic system by 2013. The citywide effort will be the first universal upgrade to the signal system since the 1970s. The changes will be both technological and philosophical in nature: new timing patterns based on updated traffic data will be incorporated into all 800 light signals within the city, and a state-of-the-art central control system — capable of giving priority to transit modes like light rail — will lift the streets out of the disco days and into the 21st century.
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