Toxic Custard newsletter transport

Traffic light programming, and the tale of the Magic Laptop

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.

Spencer Street and Collins Street intersection

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Sometimes it’s a reason which doesn’t quite make sense, or is outdated in the face of changing circumstances, but a reason nonetheless.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.

(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.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

13 replies on “Traffic light programming, and the tale of the Magic Laptop”

The Little Collins and Spencer pedestrian crossing used to really annoy me because of the shortness of the pedestrian cycle across Spencer St – I even got stopped in the middle (i.e. the tram tracks) once by police because the man had started flashing red – and obviously it’s two crossings! There was probably more traffic headed south on Spencer, but not a lot headed north – so pedestrians should have got higher priority. A different story crossing King St, though.

Yes, don’t you love the way Vicroads used the new superstop outside Southern Cross as an excuse to pretend that the pedestrian crossing at Little Collins is really two crossings and so there only needs to be enough green time to allow people to cross half way.

Yet half a block away at Bourke St the green time is sufficient for a full crossing because it has to be, and the sky doesn’t fall in for motorists. It really makes no practical difference to favour the Spencer St traffic so much more at Little Collins, but it fits with the old mentality of giving as much as possible to the vehicle traffic in the arterial road regardless of the value of doing so.

Related is the fact there’s also no pedestrian crossing at all on the north side of that Little Collins intersection, for the sake of the odd person in a car that wants to turn right into Spencer and not have to give way to pedestrians. Of course if there were, it would force the engineers to provide enough green time to safely cross the whole way!

I don’t get why the green man isn’t auto-activated at all intersections. In our area, even in the busy shopping strip, unless you press the button, you don’t get a green man. Get to the intersection a second after the lights have turned “green” for vehicles and if the button hasn’t been pushed, you have to wait a complete cycle for the green man. It’s frustrating, pedestrian-hostile, and I can’t see why it needs to be like this.

With political force applied, traffic light programmers can be pushed to overcome their anti public transport bias, which is what happened on Gold Coast to get the trams priority. It took a bit of push and shove and tweaking to get there, apparently, but get there they did. Traffic light programming seems to be a dark art in Australia, with it not being unknown for programmers (per Sydney experience) to surreptitiously tweak what they were told to do to back to the way they originally wanted it. They’re “move cars, not people” people.

One thing that strikes you in Europe is the shortness of traffic light cycles and how everything (including public transport) keeps moving along evenly. In Australia they like those long green waves where you sit at the lights for ages while all traffic on the cross-street has long since gone before the lights change (and then of course they change to red in the face of a new wave of traffic on the cross-street!). Some years ago I lived in London for a couple of years and became accustomed to crossing the road between a pretty steady flow of traffic filtered through the lights. Then I came back here and really noticed that a road could be completely empty for a short time, interspersed with a furiously-accelerating Indianapolis 500-style derby of dozens of cars, followed by an empty road again. I don’t know what book of traffic management “science” they learn from here!

Here’s a German blogger’s take on how traffic light cycles badly affect Adelaide trams:

In Sydney the other day, I saw a tram at Hay St get its priority signal, but a tram waiting on the opposite side of the intersection going the other direction didn’t get the signal as well (in spite of all other traffic being halted for the tram) and had to sit there through an entire additional cycle.

I’ve always found Vicroads quite responsive to reasonable suggestions. I recently had access to some traffic light operational diagrams where there was tram priority and they are extremely complex systems, but if working correctly, should be easy to control and adjust.

I haven’t found VicRoads to be responsive at all to my issue which is the design of the pedestrian lights near a level crossing near me that when in use triggers red lights around 2 roundabouts, one on each side of the level crossing. So you can be sitting there as a driver, no train in sight but you are facing a red light at a roundabout because one pedestrian has wanted to cross at the roundabout way over on the OTHER side of the tracks. Very frustrating for local people who just want to slip left at the roundabout and not cross the tracks at all.
The VicRoads guy I spoke to said that everything was working as it should, which is fine, BUT for the fact that the entire design is deeply flawed. I wrote to the CEO too and after a year I don’t think I’m getting a reply. But I will try that link that was posted, see if that gets anywhere.

Traffic lights are almost always designed for absolute car priority, such as across Alexandra Parade:
Forcing pedestrians to make a crossing over two cycles of the lights, just to grab a few extra seconds of unimpeded flow for turning vehicles. Perhaps thats needed at peak hour but to run the schedule at all times/days of the week shows how little they care about pedestrians. Importantly what is in place doesn’t even meet the bare minimum safe requirements for pedestrians, so they haven’t even audited the installation.

If you catch a serious safety issue VicRoads just close rank and refuse to acknowledge it:
Why are they above the law? They have a clear charter to provide transport for all the community and have signed on to the Australian standards, but as soon as anything even slightly inconveniences motor traffic its dismissed as not important. Non motorised transport users shouldn’t have to be pushing to get the absolute minimum safe standards applied.

The answer as it so often is, is that VicRoads does not care about anyone except for the drivers of cars and trucks.

They don’t care about safety, they don’t care about moving people effectively, and they don’t care about healthy transport.

Comments are closed.