Mar 20, 2023 - News

Richmond's traffic lights are getting retimed

Illustration of a traffic light with three green lights.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

For the first time in five years, nearly every traffic light in the city of Richmond is getting a timing update.

Why it matters: Richmond's growth — and the pandemic — have changed the way we live and get around. Now, the tools that control how we do so safely are due for an upgrade.

What's happening: All but 80 of the city's 480 traffic lights are being retimed, funded by a $1.8 million federal grant.

  • That includes 115 lights south of the James and 285 north of the river.
  • Work started March 10 and is expected to wrap up next spring.

Driving the news: The city tries to retime lights every few years, or as funding allows, city transportation engineer Michael Sawyer tells Axios. But residential growth in neighborhoods like Scott's Addition, Manchester and downtown has created a greater need for an update.

Plus: Plenty of Richmonders are still working from home, but when they do go into the office, they're going in much later than they were pre-pandemic, Sawyer says.

  • Traffic lights timed for a 7-9am morning commute don't need to accommodate the same volume of cars anymore, while end-of-day, 5pm traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels, Sawyer says.
Enrique Burgos, the city's affable traffic operations engineer, manning the traffic center. Photo: Karri Peifer/Axios

Yes, but: Getting cars around quickly isn't the chief goal when it comes to traffic lights in the city. It's pedestrian safety, Sawyer says.

  • Cities have to accommodate more diverse road use than counties, including transit, bikes and people.

Zoom in: Take Broad Street, for example, and a car heading east into the city from Henrico. A car traveling the speed limit will likely hit green lights for the Henrico portion of the commute.

  • But timing the lights becomes more complicated once a commuter reaches Richmond, especially in pedestrian-heavy areas like Lombardy near VCU, Sawyer says.

Pedestrians will only wait about 60 seconds before they get sick of waiting and cross anyway, Sawyer says, so traffic engineers have to design light timing with that in mind.

What's next: The light retiming will take place over the next year, mostly done remotely from the city's Traffic Control Center in City Hall, where 95% of the lights are managed.


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