In the simplest terms, traffic signal timing entails establishing the order of operations and allocating green time to each approach at an intersection while also taking into account the time required for pedestrians and other users. We must examine several essential concepts to comprehend signal timing, including cycle lengths, splits, peak hour trends, phases, pre-timed and actuated signals, optimization, coordination, and communication.

Traffic Signal Timing

Here’s a brief overview of traffic signal timing so you can understand the logistics of your daily commute a little better. Click hereto learn more about utility installations. 

Cycle Duration

A cycle length is required to show all junction phases determined by traffic volumes and perform well within a specified range. Signal timing seeks to maximize efficiency by reducing cycle length. Cycles can last from one to three minutes. A split determines this. The split comprises both the green time and the clearance interval, including the yellow and red lights. Perception or start-up time and acceleration rates are used to calculate clearance interval timings. Clearance intervals are frequently referred to as change intervals while switching signal phases. The interval between vehicles stopping or starting is called “loss time” because no cars pass through the intersection.

Pre Timed and Actuated

Pre-timed signal timings on traffic signal systems are pre-determined based on observed traffic volumes and trends and do not alter based on traffic loads. This is especially true in city grid locations with near crossings and one-way streets, where maintaining inductance detection loops for each signal point is impractical. Semi-actuated and fully-actuated signal timings exist. Semi-actuated timings only identify minor streets, whereas fully-actuated timings detect all approaches. 


The signal will change to allow you to proceed if you pull up to a red light on a minor street near a big intersection. Pre-timed signals have preset timing plans that fluctuate during the day, whereas fully-actuated signals have a range of green times that vary based on real traffic on the road. Customizable signal timing plans can be created in the signal controller. These signal timing schemes need to be fine-tuned.


Signal timing is done at isolated and system intersections. As the name implies, isolated crossings are isolated from other signalized intersections, and their signal timings do not affect nearby intersections. Because system intersections are closely spaced, any timing adjustments at one affect the upstream and downstream intersections. Signal system corridors are often organized by peak period. These are the most usual peak times. Traffic patterns or everyday commutes usually dictate these peak periods. Peaks in the morning and evening are related to traffic patterns. During the day, traffic patterns are often balanced.


For activating traffic signals, detection systems must first detect a vehicle approaching. Radar, sub-pavement electromagnetic pucks, and video detection are examples. Inductance loops are wires that extend from the traffic signal cabinet to saw cuts in the pavement. It detects a vehicle over the loop saw cut region, usually at the stop for side street and mainline left approaches. Radar and video detection are less obtrusive and require less maintenance. However, if properly maintained, typical saw-cut inductance loops have proven to be the most reliable detection method.


The “brains” of the traffic signal are located within the traffic signal cabinet. The controller directs the signal what to do, when, and for how long. The controller takes data from the detection system, chooses how to respond, and then instructs the traffic lights.

Traffic Management Centers

In many cases, signal system corridors can be remotely monitored and operated using fiber optics, copper wiring, or wireless networks. The same software that runs the traffic signal controller locally can run on a traffic management center’s computer desktop. The computer can communicate directly with junctions and adjust traffic lights functioning remotely. During exceptional events or incidents, agencies can change traffic plans or patterns remotely. That is why voltage testing should be regularly be performed 


Because many aspects, like local patterns and driving habits, cannot be quantified by science or engineering, signal timing is sometimes described as an art. So the next time you’re cruising through green lights, stop and think about the complications that led to that lovely traffic moment.

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