The original intersection technology was the humble traffic officer. When cars first hit city streets, in the early years of the 20th century, the chaos of pedestrians, carriages, and motor cars all fighting for space required the type of real-time judgement, discretion, and adaptability that only a human being could deliver. This personal oversight was the safest, most equitable way for everyone to share the road.
Cars soon won the battle for city streets, and the focus on one mode made it possible to adopt the more simplistic street controls that cities rely on today — primarily, the traffic light. The function (and even the form) of this tool hasn’t changed much in decades. It’s little wonder that when cities today want to manage an unruly or complex intersection they don’t rely on a traffic light at all — they send in a traffic cop.
One big advantage of measuring people-throughput is better coordination of existing infrastructure. By giving priority to people over cars, adaptive intersection technology can encourage travelers to shift from driving onto other modes. And (nerd alert) traffic isn’t linear, which means removing just a few cars from the road can have outsized improvements on congestion, at least in the short term.
In addition to accommodating all modes, adaptive systems can help improve commutes. The trip to work is far more frustrating when it takes 20 minutes one day and 40 minutes the next, compared with a steady 30-minute commute, even if the average time spent traveling is the same. By maintaining consistent traffic speeds—even at lower, safer speeds—adaptive intersections can make commutes more reliable and predictable for drivers and transit riders alike.