Talk to comedians and they’ll tell you the key to a successful routine is timing. And increasingly, timing is becoming a key to successful commuting in Orange County.
The Orange County Transportation Authority is nearly a fourth of the way into a countywide plan to cut commuting times by synchronizing traffic lights during rush-hour periods on all major thoroughfares, like Beach Boulevard in the north and Alicia Parkway in the south.
The goal within the next several years is to synchronize the lights at all 2,000 major intersections in the county, including 56 streets. By this time next year, the transportation authority plans to finish synchronizing 500 signals along 24 streets — 140 miles of roadway — using $9.7 million from the Measure M half-cent sales tax.
Ultimately these efforts could cut commute times by as much as 20 percent. But for that to happen, according to interviews with drivers, the OCTA needs to do a lot more communication along with its synchronization.
Many motorists who regularly travel on roads with traffic lights that are already synchronized said they had no idea the change has taken place and consequently have not adjusted their driving habits to take advantage of it.
“I just pray for the greens,” said Steve Van Berckelaer of Anaheim, who, like many Southern California drivers, has developed his own system of side street shortcuts. “I try to avoid Harbor [Boulevard],” he said.
Letty Cortez of Norwalk said she hadn’t noticed any change in the number of red lights she encounters on the section of Beach Boulevard she travels. Synchronization of Beach Boulevard lights was completed two years ago.
As things stand now, motorists will have to rely largely on word of mouth to learn about the changes, according to OCTA officials.
“Currently, we don’t have any plans” for signs along the synchronized routes or other programs to let drivers know traffic lights are coordinated, said OCTA spokeswoman Laura Scheper. The $1.1-billion transportation agency doesn’t “have the personnel to implement any additional outreach plans,” she said.
Craig Jewett, who commutes daily from Capistrano Beach to Fullerton and Anaheim, said unless people know about it and know not to speed, “it [synchronization] doesn’t work. It’s just a way [for OCTA] to burn up money.”
But Paul Glaab, chairman of the OCTA board of directors, disagreed.
“My belief is they don’t notice they’re driving through lights that they [previously] stopped at all the time,” he said. Glaab said no street signs were needed.
“We are making an impact,” he said, adding that OCTA engineers have conducted studies that showed the program works. “What we’re trying to do throughout the county is to fix it so we can actually drive through without stopping.”
He said synchronized traffic lights save gasoline, cut air pollution and reduce the use of freeways. “We’re not telling people that we’re doing it, but they’re getting the outcome,” Glaab said.
Since 2007, OCTA with the help of cities has coordinated the traffic lights during peak travel times along 12 major thoroughfares, including Euclid Street, El Toro Road, Harbor Boulevard, Alicia Parkway, Beach Boulevard and Bristol Street.
Lights along Katella Avenue, La Palma Avenue and Yorba Linda Boulevard are being synchronized and should be ready this fall.
Drivers along synchronized streets should be able to go several miles before hitting a red light, according to OCTA.
“Signal synchronization increases travel speeds approximately 20 percent,” OCTA reports. “For example, Beach Boulevard increased travel speeds up to 19 percent, decreased travel times up to 16 percent and reduced the number of stops up to 38 percent.”
According to OCTA, driving south on Beach in the evening used to take on average 49 minutes from the intersection with Imperial Highway, a few blocks from the Los Angeles County line in La Habra, to the ocean in Huntington Beach.
After the lights were coordinated, OCTA said, that commute takes an average of 41 minutes, knocking eight minutes off the trip time.
The trick is to maintain a steady speed—not too fast or too slow—to hit as many green lights as possible, according to the OCTA.
“Drive with the flow of traffic to see the most significant travel time improvements,” Scheper advises. “Don’t speed up to get to the next intersection.”
However, even drivers that heed this advice aren’t necessarily guaranteed a shorter commute time. A Voice of OC reporter drove the 20 miles of Beach Boulevard at rush hour on Thursday evening, May 10, beginning at Beach and Imperial at 5:19 p.m.
Instead of the 41 minutes projected by OCTA, the trip took 54 minutes, longer even than what OCTA considered an average commute before synchronization.
OCTA engineers had warned it could take three or four lights before the pack of cars got in synch with the lights. On the trip down Beach last week, the pack never seemed to get in synch for more than one or two lights and speeds rarely reached 35 miles an hour.
Most lights were red in the blocks before the intersection with the I-5 Freeway, in Buena Park north of Knott’s Berry Farm, and again near the 22 Freeway where the backup before Trask Avenue was so long it took two red lights to pass the intersection.
Editor’s note: Do you have driving tips to share with commuters who use synchronized streets? Help other drivers by adding your tips to the comments section below.