December 29, 2023

RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT

 Did you ever wonder why our street stoplights designate red as “stop” and green as “go”?  

Well, in the 1840s the British railroads adopted a flag, lamp and semaphore signal system where red meant danger, white meant safety and green indicated proceed with caution.  They took their inspiration from early industrialization where factory machines used red to indicate when equipment was off and green when turned on.  But one time the red glass lens on a signal lamp dropped out of its socket, showing a white light, which then caused a rail collision. 

Traditionally red has evoked danger and green, a more calming influence.  But it was optical science that reinforced the choice.  Red has the longest wavelength in the visible spectrum and is less likely to be interfered with by other light sources in what’s known as “light scattering”.  Think of fog or dust in the air. Red light penetrates best.

By the 1860s traffic conditions in London prompted officials to seek a way of controlling horse-drawn carriages with a signal system and opted for the railroad scheme of color-coded semaphores and lights controlled by a policeman, often perched on a raised kiosk in the middle of the intersection.

You can credit American police officer William Potts for the invention of the first traffic lights in Detroit in 1920.  But back then they were still sequenced by an officer, making traffic control expensive.  Eventually, a timer system was introduced to sequence the flow.  But there was also a system activated by sound.

A microphone was installed on the light pole and when a car approached it would honk its horn and the light would turn green… but just for ten seconds to allow that one car to get through.  You can imagine the problem that was going to create.

Today we use not only timers but some sophisticated measuring devices to sequence traffic lights, including inductive loops.  You’ve probably seen signs of them, buried in the pavement, as you pull up to an intersection,.  They measure the metal in cars as they drive over them, allowing the system to know that a car is there waiting for a green signal.

Even the traffic lights themselves have improved.  They now measure either eight or twelve inches in diameter and must be visible in every lighting condition.  The older incandescent bulbs that illuminated them used to burn at 175 watts and needed constant replacement.  Now they’re being replaced with high endurance LED lamps which give as much light but only require 10 – 25 watts of electricity.

To help the 13 million Americans who are color blind, stoplights are always arranged with red on top and green on the bottom.

Given the sophisticated technology and engineering time spent on designing a stoplight system for an intersection, they’re not cheap.  A fully equipped setup can cost between $250,000 and a half-million dollars with an annual maintenance cost of $8000.  That’s why towns and CDOT are so reluctant to add new lights, despite requests.

 

December 22, 2023

THE SANTAS WHO WEAR BROWN

 Did Santa make it on time this year?  Well, thanks should also go to United Parcel Service, or UPS.

As I wrote a few years ago… When UPS was founded as the American Messenger Company in Seattle in 1907, most deliveries back then were to stores, not customers, and were done on foot or by bicycle.  Adding a Model T to their fleet in 1913, the company started serving neighborhoods.  By 1930 the company expanded to most cities in the East and Midwest, adding delivery by cargo-airline  partnerships to their modes of transportation.

From 1975 to 1982 UPS was headquartered in Greenwich CT and was serving all 48 contiguous states and Puerto Rico.  In 1988 UPS launched its own airline fleet, now the 10th largest in the US and serving 815 destinations worldwide.  In 1991 UPS acquired Mailboxes Etc and re-branded its 5000 independently owned stores as UPS Stores.

But how do they do it?

When a package enters the UPS system it goes first to the closest hub by truck, train (if less than 200 miles) or by air (if farther).  After an initial sort it then goes to the hub nearest the final destination.  UPS operates airport sorting hubs in Philadelphia, Dallas, Ontario CA, Rockford IL and its largest in Louisville KY, known as Worldport. 


Worldport is a five million square foot complex the size of 90 football fields with 300 plane loads of packages arriving 24 hours a day.  The facility can sort 416,000 packages an hour.  Processing time is about ten minutes per package.  It is heavily automated, boasting 33,000 conveyors covering 55 miles in length.

The packages are then shipped again to the hub nearest the destination and trucked to local warehouses.  Here’s where more serious technology comes into play with a system called ORIONOn-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation.  The software has 80 pages of algorithms combining maps, customer information, traffic conditions, pick-up requests and package priorities to give each driver the fastest route to complete deliveries.

One of ORION’s time savings tricks is avoiding left hand turns for drivers.  Not only are right hand turns faster but they’re safer.  UPS says that saves their drivers 20 million miles of driving, 98 million minutes of idling and 9 million gallons of fuel a year.

UPS vehicles even have their own GPS system giving its drivers detailed information about each destination.  As the driver gets close to the drop-off location the system beeps, telling him (or her) to slow down.


When the big brown truck pulls up in front of your house to make a delivery you’ll notice the driver usually stops the engine.  He doesn’t stroll to your door, he jogs!  With hundreds of deliveries per day per driver, it all adds up.

Sometimes the driver needs you to sign to accept the delivery.  Even that involves some amazing tech… DIAD, the Delivery Information Acquisition Devicea 1.3 pound handheld computer that scans barcodes, collects signatures and stores information about each package.  

So hopefully Santa’s helpers in the brown uniforms have delivered your gifts on time, making for the merriest of Christmases.

 

 

 

December 15, 2023

DO POLITICIANS UNDERSTAND COMMUTERS?

Do the folks in state government know what it’s like to be a commuter?

When’s the last time that Governor Ned Lamont took a train… not for a photo op, but for real?  He does have a home in Greenwich so he could be enjoying the great service on The Hartford Line and Metro-North.  But it seems he’s always driving around in that big (chauffeured) SUV which, by the way, is not electric (despite his calls for Connecticut to “go green” and all-electric by 2035!)

C’mon Governor:  walk the talk!

Or how about our lawmakers?  When the legislature is in session, why aren’t they on the train also?  And why do State Representatives and State Senators all have special license plates for their cars?  Does that give them special parking privileges or an exemption from law enforcement?


Admittedly, if the people we send to Hartford to represent us are all driving, at least they know how bad the roads are… not that they’ve done anything to improve on that gridlock.  But if they took our trains and buses I’m guessing maybe they’d fix what’s wrong there, pronto.

And then there’s the CDOT.  Their beautiful new headquarters in Newington on Berlin Turnpike is serviced by four CT Transit  bus routes, including one from Hartford’s Union (train) Station.  But I wonder how many staffers opt to ride the very mass transit system their agency funds as their giant parking lot always seems full.

Before Michael Bloomberg was elected Mayor of New York City, and quite often while he was in office, he rode on the subways to get to work.  His successors did not.  In Boston, then-Governor Michael Dukakis regularly rode “The T”.

These days they’d probably claim it’s “security” that prevents them from riding mass transit, but that sounds like more of an excuse than explanation.

This week’s column was inspired by DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s recent admission that she doesn’t even know where her city’s Metro lines run.  I guess she doesn’t ride either?

Does Governor Lamont know what it’s like to ride on standing-room-only Metro-North trains at rush hour?  Or has he tried to take Shore Line East to New London with its four-and-a-half hour gaps in service from New Haven? 


Or consider our state’s bus system:  how many elected officials, even locally, have ridden the buses their constituents rely on every day?  If they haven’t, how can they empathize with what it’s like, let alone fix it?

So who’s to represent the commuter?  Why, the newly formed CPTC, the Connecticut Public Transportation Council, successor to the Commuter Council.  But its Chairman, Jim Gildea, tells me he gets the cold shoulder from the CDOT, no longer invited to media events where the pols wrench their shoulders patting their own backs about how much they’re supporting mass transit.

While the CPTC meets monthly and is always attended by Metro-North’s staff, the CDOT only shows up quarterly.  And when big announcements about schedule changes and such are upcoming, the Council is given no advance notice.

The new year would be a great chance for the folks who write our laws and run our state’s mass transit to change their commuting patterns and understand better what its really like to be a commuter.

December 08, 2023

YOUR TURN: WHY DO YOU HATE I-95


Last week’s column (“Why We Love To Hate I-95”) apparently struck a nerve, generating a lot of comments, some of which I thought I’d share here.

Carolanne wrote “I-95 needs to be re-paved.  Ever notice how uneven the interstate is?  It’s very unsafe.  As for (lack of State) police, thank you Democrats (for defunding law enforcement.)”

Commenting on the highway’s condition, Pam from Darien said “I need to follow up with CDOT about the claim I put in for $350 for repairs to my car after driving on freshly laid pavement this summer.  The black splatters covering my white car had to be removed professionally.  I HATE I-95.”

The biggest number of comments came after my suggestion that, to reduce the use of I-95 by local traffic, some of the road’s 93 exits be closed.

For background, this was an idea studied 20 years ago by the Transportation Strategy Board (TSB).  While some people loved the idea of closing exits (many of which are less than a mile apart), they only wanted to close exits they never used, not of course “their” exits.  So this idea, like so many suggestions of the TSB, went nowhere.

Barb in New London reminded me that the only way to cross the Thames and Connecticut Rivers (and not drive 20 miles out of your way) is to use I-95’s bridges, one of which was in gridlock recently after emergency repairs due to crumbling concrete headers.  She also pointed out that CDOT is not keeping the roadway or breakdown lanes clear of debris… “furniture, dog crates and bags of garbage… sometimes there for days,” she wrote.

But the best email I received was from a retired Traffic and ITS (Intelligent Traffic Systems) engineer now living in Glastonbury.  He writes “I-95 was designed and built over 65 years ago. The world and highway design has changed a lot since then. It’s long past the time that I-95 is brought into the 21st Century but the regional planning agencies who set priorities for spending, have long refused to prioritize improvements.”

He continued…”I remember 40 years ago thinking the state will someday address it but here we are 40 years later and it’s worse than ever. Everyone I know complains about it and says something should be done. So why then, after decades, is nothing being done? That is what should be addressed.  Who is to blame? CTDOT? WestCOG? The Governor? The State Legislature? The towns? This is what the media should be addressing. It’s the only way to break the never ending logjam that has led to more ‘do nothing’ “

Love it or hate it, I-95 is the carotid artery of this state’s economy.  It is vital to all of our lives (even if you never drive on it).  But like many of our own arteries, it’s beyond being clogged.  It’s a heart attack waiting to happen.

 

 


December 01, 2023

WHY WE LOVE TO HATE I-95

Someone recently described me as “the Lewis Black of transportation”:  angry, cynical and sarcastic.   That’s high praise, in my view.  So imagine my surprise that when Lewis performed recently in Waterbury and New London he riffed on the highway we love to hate:  I-95.

“I lived in Connecticut for five years (attending the Yale School of Drama),” he told the crowd.  “There’s nothing more joyous than driving up I-95.  Hooo!  Literally, all they do is repair it.  They’re never going to finish it.  It’s like a state law… in order to get through Connecticut you must spend an hour in your car bitching and moaning.  Now that there’s money for infrastructure, you can count on this going on for the next 100 years.”

See if this list captures the essence of your angst about Connecticut’s busiest highway:

TRAFFIC:     Some 200,000 vehicles a day drive some of the 89 miles of I-95 in Connecticut.  That’s double the original design capacity.  No wonder the road always seems congested, also perhaps because we have…


TOO MANY EXITS:     I-95 is supposed to be an interstate highway but ends up being a short cut for local traffic.  According to the CDOT the average distance driven on I-95, including vehicles going from Florida to Maine, is just 11 miles.  Why are there 93 exits in just 89 miles?  On the New Jersey Turnpike there are only 18 exits over its 117 mile length.

TRUCKS:     Oh, we love to hate them, don’t we?  They clog and hog “our” road and are so heavy they’ve dug track-like ruts in the pavement, creating a kind of cruise control for unaware drivers.  But remember… we put those trucks on the road through our voracious consumption and demand for ever-faster deliveries.

OPERATIONAL LANES:   Ever notice those surprise “extra lanes” between some on-ramps and off-ramps, helping to merge traffic?  They’re great… until some bozo from out of state gets in them and is surprised to find, always at the last minute, that they only run a few hundred yards and they have to merge back into the flow.

BROKEN STREET LIGHTS:       The busiest sections of I-95 are supposed to be illuminated by overhead street lights to increase safety.  But do they work?  Of course not.  Are they ever fixed?  Doesn’t seem so.

SERVICE AREAS:     Local Connecticut drivers are smart enough not to buy gasoline on I-95:  the prices on the highway are 20 – 30 cents higher than local gas stations.  And as for food, did you know that one of the most expensive McDonalds in the US is at the northbound service area in Darien where a Big Mac combo meal costs big bucks… $18?

NOT ENOUGH TROOPERS:       For such a busy highway, there are only a handful of State Troopers on patrol, coping with accidents, breakdowns and, as time allows, chasing after speeders.  If we want to be safe, we need more officers enforcing the traffic rules.

What are your favorite gripes about I-95?  Drop me a line and let me know what I missed.  Meantime… happy motoring!

YOU ARE THE TRAFFIC

Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic the other day on I-95 I grumbled to myself “Where is all this traffic coming from?”   And then I remembere...