Charlotte Buses Beat the System

Some Charlotte buses now have a fancy gizmo that allows them to change red lights to green lights on the busiest routes

You know the feeling: you’re running late for work, traffic is terrible, and then, as an added bonus, you catch every single red light. If it’s bad for you, it’s just as bad for the bus next to you in traffic.

The Charlotte Area Transit System has figured out a way to cheat.

With gadgetry and grant money, CATS now has a system that allows some late buses to catch up by catching more green lights. Here’s how it works:

The Problem
Let’s say Charlotte’s streets are laid out like your circulatory system. Central Avenue and Albemarle Road would be smaller arteries that carry a little too much blood, and the blood’s pumping the hardest during rush hour. Traffic signals are plaque. If the road’s clogged by red lights, traffic stacks up, buses run behind, their engines burn extra gas, and riders get angry. CATS says most buses show up on time, but delays can be costly and bad for the blood pressure.

The Solution
The fix is something firefighters have been using for years: a small gadget called an Opticom that works like your TV’s remote control. A transmitter on the roof shoots an infrared signal ahead. A receiver at an intersection picks it up, and changes the light ahead from red to green. If a driver is running behind (or if the bus is full), he or she can flick on the Opticom and get back on schedule by catching more green lights.

Does It Work?
It’s worked in other cities. A 2005 report showed Chicago was able to cut an average of three minutes off its buses’ running time. The money saved was roughly the cost of running one weekday bus. Transit Signal Priority, as it’s called, cost $1.2 million to set up and run in Charlotte, paid for by a federal Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality grant. The system went online in December, only along Central and Albemarle. But with dozens of intersections already set up with Opticom receivers, Charlotte may be wired to help future buses go green and keep riders’ blood from boiling.

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