The Magic Laptop
One evening many years ago some PTUA bods and I were meeting with a Vicroads bloke about traffic light priority and other related issues.
He had a laptop with him, and it displayed a diagram of a major intersection; I think it was somewhere out on Burwood Highway.
While pondering topics such as tram priority, he talked us through how the traffic light sequences worked, and how the traffic flows, showing us on the laptop.
And he showed us what would happen if the sequence was tweaked; part of the sequence runs for longer, causing some vehicles to pass through more quickly, some to be delayed a few seconds. Really interesting.
Someone asked: “So that’s a simulation?”
The response: “No, that’s real. It’s happening right now.”
So he’d been fiddling with the traffic lights in realtime, and local motorists were probably wondering why they were zipping through or being slightly delayed.
That wasn’t just a laptop, that was a Magic Laptop.
Programming traffic lights
Anyway, via this and other discussions with people who seem to know what they’re talking about, I get the sense that Melbourne’s traffic lights are reasonably flexible in terms of their configuration, and can be controlled remotely.
But there’s a limit. They can’t handle all scenarios automatically, so for instance when trials of absolute tram priority were done in Nicholson Street, it needed someone to manually control the lights to give a green for the tram.
There are also apparently limited resources, so opportunities to re-program traffic lights don’t come up as often as they’d like.
Why is it so?
Everywhere in government (as well as in the corporate world), if you go digging, you’ll find there’s usually a reason for something.
Sometimes it’s a reason which doesn’t quite make sense, or is outdated in the face of changing circumstances, but a reason nonetheless.
A couple of weeks ago I noticed that the traffic lights at Spencer and Little Collins Streets had an extraordinarily short green man, only about 18 seconds. Then the red man would flash for about another 10 seconds, and then there’d be a solid red man for a full 40 seconds before the parallel traffic light turned yellow.
This is utterly ridiculous in the central city, next to a major railway station, where pedestrians should be the priority.
Setting it like this is just goading people to cross against the lights.
I made enquiries with City of Melbourne, and discovered it is a road managed by Vicroads. So I approached them about it, and eventually I got a response.
Why was it like this? Because Spencer Street is closed for sewer works south of Collins, and they wanted to allow vehicles to detour into Little Collins easily.
But — as shown by the video — there wasn’t much traffic coming down Spencer that actually needs to detour.
Once they realised this, they set it back. Just like that. Someone probably clicked some buttons on a Magic Laptop, and it was done.
A good outcome, with some delicious technical tidbits in the email trail which I won’t publish, other than to say yes, they really do use the reference numbers on traffic control boxes.
(The few cars, and the number of people crossing Spencer Street against the lights would appear to indicate more needs to be done at this intersection to accommodate pedestrians. Note also that this is just metres from where the old pedestrian subway under the road from the station used to emerge.)
The bigger picture
I’ve also had a discussion about that super-annoying crossing at Centre Road/Eskay Road in South Oakleigh. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently it’s been tweaked too.
But the bigger picture issue is that traffic lights (even in the CBD) are being programmed with poor outcomes for pedestrians. Sometimes as above there’s a reason — sometimes, apparently, it’s just an error.
Much the same issue occurred at Elizabeth/Little Collins a couple of years ago.
And more recently, City of Melbourne has put in brand new installations that failed to auto activate the green man, despite it being policy within the Hoddle Grid.
— Daniel Bowen (@danielbowen) March 29, 2018
(And after they fixed that one, the timing was wrong, with — again — too little green man time.)
These things do make a difference. It’s not just about compliance and safety. The travel mode you want to thrive is the one you should encourage. Make it easier for people to walk, and more people will walk.
What I have learned is that Vicroads is now consulting on some of these issues with groups such as Victoria Walks. This is definitely progress.
Be polite, but firm
Individuals shouldn’t really have to get these things fixed. But in the real world, everybody (including Vicroads and City of Melbourne) is stretched for time, and clearly some things simply aren’t being spotted and fixed otherwise.
Put in a report. Twitter may not be sufficient, so do it via their feedback web site. Include a photo if it’s at all useful.
Be polite. Scrupulously polite. You won’t get anywhere by shouting.
Explain your case. Present the evidence, the logic.
Keep a copy of your query text, and the reference number, because some web sites (such as Vicroads) don’t email you a copy back, and it may be useful at the next step.
If you get a pro forma reply which doesn’t make sense or doesn’t address the issue, query it. Be polite, but firm.
And with a bit of luck, and if your point is convincing, you might just get it fixed.
Of course, what I really want is a Magic Laptop.