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Traffic in the District: Can traffic lights be synced?

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A $400 million plan to improve traffic in Los Angeles is now complete. The massive project synced all 4,500 of the city's traffic lights. As an area with our own traffic woes, the idea is attractive, but would it work?

“If you're in a hustle and bustle like me and you're trying to get to your location it's hard,” says Latisha Goldsmith. 

Los Angeles just spent 30 years and nearly half of $1 billion to sync its traffic lights and sensors, hoping to speed up the traffic flow. 

Bill Dean’s company M.C. Dean maintains traffic signals in dozens of cities, including Washington.

“It’s a big challenge,” he says. 

The District’s lights are synced for a normal traffic flow. The problem, however, is the interstates, like I-66, that empty directly onto city streets, making it harder to maintain a synced flow of traffic. It’s a city designed for cross-town traffic, not just a few main commuter arteries.

“It’s not like Manhattan where you can have your avenues,” says Dean. Everybody flies down the avenues and then everybody waits at cross streets. We’re standing here at 14th and K. Which one has priority?” 

And perhaps the biggest problem are multi-jurisdictions. MDOT, VDOT and DDOT would have to work together to sync the lights along commuter corridors from Maryland and Virginia into D.C., meaning policy and politics become a bigger challenge than software and engineering. 

It’s not a huge surprise for motorists in the Washington region. 

“There’s times when it can be frustrating but that’s the price we pay to live in the nation’s capital,” says Karen Leder of Bethesda.

As far as Los Angeles, the city claims it’s already seeing traffic moving 16-percent faster due to the new synchronized light system, meaning the average speed on city streets is now 17 mph instead of 15 mph.

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