OPINION: I’m green with synchronicity

The traffic lights in downtown Sarnia have theoretically been synchronized for motorists, at least for vehicles that maintain a steady 40 km/h. Glenn Ogilvie
The traffic lights in downtown Sarnia have theoretically been synchronized for motorists, at least for vehicles that maintain a steady 40 km/h. Glenn Ogilvie

George Mathewson

When I was growing up near Germain Park the kids of our neighbourhood would often organize sprawling games of hide-and-seek to while away long summer evenings.

‘Home Base’ was a splintery streetlight pole fiercely defended by the player, or players, charged with being “it.”

When the streetlights came on, the game was over.

Nine-year-old George knew, for a cross-your-heart fact, that the streetlights were turned on each night by a shadowy figure known as the “Streetlight Guy.” He worked in a room somewhere lined with rows of light switches – flick, flick, flick – and used the rest of his time pushing traffic signal buttons as he saw fit to control Sarnia’s cars and trucks.

More than anything in the world I wanted to be an astronaut. But Streetlight Guy’s job was a close second.

Talk about having power!

The embers of those early career aspirations were stirred recently by a Globe and Mail story on Toronto’s Traffic Management Centre. It seems that in a Don Mills office somewhere a team of municipal employees play God by monitoring traffic on dozens of screens, dispatching response teams and fiddling with the traffic lights as they see fit to manage vehicle flow.

Then, last week, a city hall staff report to council confirmed the technology has evolved to the point Sarnia could control all its traffic signals from a single, central location.

Sarnia with its own Master Control Room? Really?

The report contained other interesting stuff.

For one thing – and this might surprise some drivers – the city already has synchronized traffic lights to control vehicle flow and reduce delays.

The system is a patchwork of hardwires, radio signals and internal timers that works if and when – and this is a big if – motorists drive the speed limit of 50 km/h on most streets, and 40km/h in the downtown core.

The synchronization works best on Brock and Vidal streets, where motorists actually do stand a fighting chance of travelling their length without hitting a red. Some sections of Exmouth and London aren’t bad, either.

But the clocks in some of the time-based traffic signals can and do drift apart, leaving other streets out of synch.

So I called Sarnia’s chief engineer to ask, hopefully, about the Master Control Room, only to be told I was premature.

“We are keeping our eyes on the technology but it isn’t cheap,” Andre Morin said.

“You could see it being useful in a bigger metropolis, like a Toronto, because they get the big traffic snarls. But we don’t really have that need here.”

Well. Alright, then. But I still haven’t given up on astronaut school.