With new signal timing method, Twin Cities traffic could flow more smoothly

Traffic driving under a green traffic signal

Eliminating intersection bottlenecks is one of the most persistent and difficult challenges for traffic engineers. A new mathematical theory called “max-pressure signal control” has been proven to achieve maximum throughput for entire city road networks, but it has not yet been used in practice. In a new study, U of M researchers brought the theory several steps closer to real-world use and found that it could offer many benefits to Minnesota road users.

“For most intersections and demand periods, we found that max-pressure control offered significant improvement over current signal timings,” says Michael Levin, an assistant professor with the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering. “Large reductions in delay—sometimes over 50 percent—suggest that this new method of signal timing could achieve higher throughput during peak demand and be more responsive to queues.”

To achieve these findings, researchers began by addressing some aspects of max-pressure signal timing that would make it difficult to implement in a real-world setting. First, researchers addressed its assumption that all roadways had separate turning lanes by adapting the mathematical model to accommodate mixed travel lanes.

Another drawback of the original formula is that the signal control doesn’t operate on a cycle; this could cause long wait times when demand is uneven and make the signal cycle unpredictable for both drivers and pedestrians.

“To solve this issue, we modified the formula to include a maximum waiting time and require that the phase selection follows a cycle,” Levin says. “This allows traffic engineers to create an ordered set of phases for each intersection.”

Once the updated version of max-pressure control was developed, researchers tested it in simulations of two corridors in Hennepin County, Minnesota. The simulations revealed numerous potential benefits including reduced environmental impacts and reduced road user costs resulting from travel time savings and lower fuel costs.

“The findings show that our new max-pressure control formula will reduce the average queue length during peak hours and that vehicles will not wait as long at intersections,” Levin says. “We can also predict higher throughput and faster vehicle speeds, all of which will mitigate congestion and improve quality of life.”

In addition, a cost-benefit analysis shows that the total value of travel time savings is considerably larger than the cost to implement max-pressure control.

The project’s success led researchers to explore the possibility of a real-world pilot project with available traffic signal hardware. They found that the traffic signal technology currently used in Hennepin County could be upgraded to support a pilot study, laying the groundwork for a future real-world test of this promising new signal timing method.

The project was funded by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board (LRRB). Phase two of the work, also funded by the LRRB, is underway.

Writer: Megan Tsai


Sign up to receive our Catalyst newsletter in your inbox twice every month.

Media Contact

Michael McCarthy