Pittsburgh’s Smart Traffic Lights are Taking a Bite Out of Vehicle Pollution

Smith is only half joking when he insists this practice of “squeezing one guy through” helps traffic flow better. But traffic flow is something he knows a lot about. A professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department, he’s the guy behind the roll-out of an experimental adaptive traffic signal system meant to heal traffic congestion in the city’s busy East End.

“It operates totally decentralized, so each intersection watches the traffic that’s coming in all directions,” Smith says. “And then in real time, it builds a plan so that all the vehicles it sees move through the intersection in the most efficient way possible.”

That means a computer algorithm essentially figures out how long to leave the green lights green and the red lights red in order to maximize traffic flow in all directions. Steve’s lights are also all talking to each other, so neighboring signals can coordinate their pattern of green and red to keep the flow going for blocks at at time. As proof, Steve drives through the East Liberty test zone near the intersection of Penn Avenue and Centre Ave and makes it through five lights in a row. Once outside the reach of his smart lights— right on cue—his river of green abruptly turns red.

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