Georgia’s Department of Transportation and the city of Alpharetta are syncing up traffic signals.

Gridlock Guy: Seeing green in Costa Rica — on a timer

I’ve been blessed with incredible opportunities to travel the world. And when I’ve gotten to see Italy, Aruba, Great Britain, Turkey, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Morocco in recent years, I’ve always tried to observe how traffic flows, how people drive, and how road systems work.

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I don’t normally experience another country behind the wheel, and my recent mission trip to Costa Rica was no different. For my entire week-long excursion to San Jose, my commute to our volunteer site has been as a passenger on a small bus. My group and I also took about an hour as pedestrians in the downtown area. But I did observe one thing noticeably different in San Jose than Atlanta.

Some traffic signals on main drags in Costa Rica’s capital have timers or warning flashes on the green lights. These impulses work as a “yellow before the yellow.”

As the green cycle nears an end, some lights state how many seconds remain inside the bulb itself. The numbers easily display for motorists and countdown from 30, before the light turns yellow. Other signals simply have the green light flash as a warning before the yellow.

This is a traffic signal just outside of downtown San Jose, Costa Rica. Some green lights at big intersections in the city have timers before they turn yellow.
Photo: Doug Turnbull

A local motorist told me that these dynamic green lights are a relatively new feature. San Jose added them only in the last couple of years and only in bigger intersections. Absent my normal contacts and tools I would have in Atlanta, I don’t have as much empirical data to share about these lights’ success in San Jose. But I think they would be a good addition in Atlanta.

Major Metro Atlanta intersections often have problems with people blocking the box — i.e. staying stopped in the middle of an intersection when a signal turns red. A potential green-light timer or warning could give people some more leeway or margins for error when attempting to squeeze across to the other side. Of course, that could back fire and give people even more confidence to pull off an inconsiderate move.

Green-light timers could also give motorists the same satisfaction — or dread — as trip times give. If someone is waiting through a long traffic light, they can at least gauge if they are going to make it past. A timer could even tip motorists off more specifically as to when a light is mistimed.

We already have plenty of experience with warning lights and timers as pedestrians. Many crosswalks tell those crossing the street exactly how much time they have to do it. And people plan on “going for it” accordingly. Can they make their way across in 5 seconds? Maybe not. But in 15 or 20 seconds? Speed walk and give it a shot.

Green-light timers and warnings aren’t revolutionary enough to warrant replacing good, working traffic signals. But they definitely are worth studying and exploring for when municipalities replace older ones. They actually could decrease the amount of blocking in intersections or, at the very least, give drivers a little more peace of mind about when they will advance. Thanks to Costa Rica for the inspiration. Pura vida. 

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Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxmg.com .

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