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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 77 · No. 6 > Training Update

May/June 2014
Vol. 77 · No. 6

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-14-004

Training Update

by Courtney Chiaparas

Helping Practitioners Improve Traffic Signal Management and Operations

Arterial roadways are critical to the national transportation system, accounting for more than 1 million lane miles of roadway connecting local and collector roads to national highways. These roadways, in turn, rely on the management and operation of an estimated 311,000 traffic signals in the United States.

Despite advances in the state of the art of traffic signal operation over the last several decades, in practice, traffic signal operators at agencies across the country are struggling to set priorities and build and manage signal systems that are sustainable and meet stakeholder needs. The National Transportation Operations Coalition’s National Traffic Signal Report Card and Traffic Signal Operations Self Assessment and other studies have shown that many agencies lack clearly stated operational objectives. As a result, signal operators find it increasingly difficult to meet the expectations of policymakers and the public. Instead, traffic signal management is often a reactive and complaint-driven process by which operators work to maintain minimum standards with limited budgets.

Arterial Management Program

Through its Arterial Management Program, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) works to advance management practices and operations strategies that ensure the safe and efficient use of arterials. One of the program’s focus areas is improving management of traffic signals. To support the program, the National Highway Institute (NHI) developed four new courses designed to help practitioners improve the timing design, operation, and maintenance of traffic signals.

The courses that make up the new traffic signal series are as follows:

  • 133122 Traffic Signal Timing Concepts

  • 133123 Systems Engineering for Signal Systems Including Adaptive Control

  • 133124 Evaluating the Performance of Traffic Signal Systems

  • 133125 Traffic Signal Management: The Basic Service Approach

The courses provide a continuation of the concepts currently taught in the longstanding NHI course 133121 Traffic Signal Design and Operations. The new courses incorporate an objectives- and performance-based approach that encourages practitioners to examine their goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics--or GOST--to ensure alignment between what is most important and what is achievable within resource and capability constraints.

“In other words, let’s be more deliberate about how we design and build traffic signal systems to ensure that we can effectively operate and maintain these systems to meet the expectations of our most important stakeholders,” says Eddie Curtis, a traffic management specialist who works for FHWA’s Resource Center and Office of Operations and helped develop the courses.

Photo. A traffic signal suspended from an overhead bar is next to a small sign that says "Left turn yield on green."
NHI developed four new courses designed to help practitioners improve the timing design, operation, and maintenance of traffic signals like this one.

Optimizing the use of limited resources involves evaluating operations by identifying performance measures and collecting operational performance information, and then relating the need for resources to meaningful and achievable operational objectives. Also, articulating agency objectives to the public and policymakers is important to let them know the need for resources--and which services might be eliminated or deferred if adequate resources are unavailable.

Pilot Sessions

Participant feedback following pilot sessions of the courses was positive. Dean Harris, a signal systems engineer who manages the Central Office System Timing Section of the North Carolina Department of Transporta-tion, says the session of the pilot for 133122 Traffic Signal Timing Concepts he participated in provided an excellent overview of signal system timing concepts. Specifically, the course provided “a good background on the general aspects of signal timing, when to consider coordinating adjacent signals, and low-tech ways of developing coordination for traffic and transportation engineers who may not be exposed to signal and system timing development and implementation on a daily basis.”

The four signal series courses complement one another, and the GOST model is common to all of them. Although the courses do not necessarily need to be taken in any particular order, and there are no mandatory prerequisites, participants should have a grasp of the concepts of 133121 Traffic Signal Design and Operations before taking 133122 Traffic Signal Timing Concepts in particular.

NHI will offer a certificate of accomplishment for participants who take all four courses. Course rollout is expected in 2014.

For more information or to schedule a session, visit www.nhi.fhwa.dot.gov.


Courtney Chiaparas is a contributing editor for Public Roads.

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