Imagine having a magical car with the ability to make red lights turn green as you approach, essentially allowing you to cruise down Poplar from Germantown to downtown unencumbered by traffic signals.
That dream may never happen for average drivers, but it's now a reality for Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) bus operators on the Poplar corridor. This morning, MATA unveiled its new Poplar Avenue Priority Signal project that can shave around 20 percent off travel time for bus riders on that route.
Special sensors on the buses signal to the traffic lights when buses are about 30 seconds away from the light or about 400 feet away, whichever comes first. If the light is already green, it will typically remain green for the bus to pass through. When the bus doors are open, the sensors are disabled so the light isn't left on green as passengers enter or exit.
"There's GPS on every bus, and that sends a coordinating signal to tell how fast the bus is traveling, sending an estimated time of arrival to the intersection," said Craig Carroll of Global Travel Technologies, which provided the technology for the joint project between MATA and the city of Memphis.
It doesn't work every time, however. On Thursday morning, members of the media were given a tour of the new technology as they rode on a bus along Poplar from Kirby to Perkins. On both the east and west journeys, the bus was stopped by a red light at White Station. And on the way east, it was also stopped at Truse Parkway and Mendenhall.
"Pedestrian crossings can interfere," Carroll explained. "It doesn't always give a green light or extend a green light. But it will swing you green where it can."
Tests on the new technology revealed a 15 to 20 percent average reduction in travel time for buses along Poplar.
Although the Poplar project is the first one to be completed, a priority signaling project on Elvis Presley will be unveiled soon. MATA has installed the sensors along Elvis Presley, but the city engineering office still has to complete some work on the project. Currently, sensors on Elvis Presley from Union to Brooks are working, and signals from Brooks to the Mississippi state line are in the works.
Sensors have been installed on 140 buses and at 40 stop light intersections. The transit priority signal project was funded by a $1 million grant and took about 12 months for installation and testing.
MATA's Interim President and General Manager Tom Fox said the transit authority has plans to install priority signaling along Lamar, Park, Jackson, and Third as well. He said they're also hoping to eventually get dedicated bus lanes on some roads, so MATA can operate rapid transit lines that would get passengers to their destinations more quickly.