The Magic of Right-of-Way

As Christian Lander stated in “Stuff White People Like” – they like Public Transportation That Is Not a Bus. I guess that narrows it down to trains: Light Rail, Subways, Commuter Rail, Trams, etc. Part of reason white people (and politicians, and developers) like rail transit is because the rails are part of the route. It has a greater sense of permanence.

Also, there is the magic of right of way: the fact that once the vehicle starts moving, we don’t have to stop for them, they stop for us. Heavy rail doesn’t have to stop for vehicles at grade crossings. Light rail only stops for grade crossings downtown – it shouldn’t, but that is a topic for another discussion…

So there I was, at the Northeast library. It was midday on a weekday and I had taken my son there to hang out while I picked up some books. We left the library to eat at a restaurant across the street. While waiting at the stoplight, I noticed that the white right-of-way indicator was illuminated on the traffic signal. I looked both ways for an ambulance or fire truck as I’ve been conditioned to do. There were no emergency vehicles. In fact, the street was surprisingly quiet. Then I saw the signal preempted a block down, and the only thing there was the route 10 bus, picking up some passengers.


At that point I realized the bus was preempting the signal, and then later I confirmed it with Metro Transit. Right of way achievement unlocked! OK, it’s not actual preemption, the bus can only tell a green light to stay green a little longer, but it opens up a world of possibilities. Bringing the magic of right of way to the lowly bus could literally bring it up to speed. Yet again, I find myself marveling at the opportunities we have to solve real-world problems by leveraging technology.

Metro Transit says the bus will only preempt the signal if it’s running behind schedule. Why not do it all of the time to instead see how much time can be shaved off the schedule permanently? Ridership can often be correlated with convenience and I think many people would see the bus as more convenient than their car if it got every green light while they are stuck in their car at every red.

And why not let the bus truly preempt the signal? A hierarchy of preempt priority would be maintained: ambulance, police and fire would of course all share top priority. But then the bus would come second. Normally when I’m driving down Central Avenue, I avoid getting behind the 10 as best I can. It’s always creeping along, stopping at every block. Add preemption to the mix, and you might actually have cars purposefully following the 10, like ambulance chasing lawyers, going through every light on a green. Then they may truly wonder why they’re chasing the 10, rather than riding on it.

Lastly, why is this technology only being used on one route? I’m pretty certain that almost every signal in the metro area has preemption technology. We should be using it everywhere! I like what Metro Transit is doing, but as usual, it’s just not enough.

Justin Foell

About Justin Foell

Justin is an aspiring urbanist stuck in suburbia. He enjoys cycling, beer, yo-yos, computers, and other geekery. Closet railfan.

19 thoughts on “The Magic of Right-of-Way

  1. Dave DuJour

    Why not let the bus preempt the signal all the time? You say why in the article: “It’s always creeping along, stopping at every block.” Sure, once those passengers are loaded it would get a green light again, but the bus is still stopping. Why does it matter if the bus stops for a red light or to pick up/drop off passengers? Cars still won’t follow behind it.

    I suppose the preemption technology could be tied to the buses stop request signal, or a button for the driver to push when stopping to pick someone up. Then the light could turn RED just when the bus needs to pull over (and be on it’s normal red/green timer) and be GREEN when the bus just wants to go right through. I mean, if the bus is stopping anyway, why not stop on a red light?

  2. Jeff Klein

    “It’s always creeping along, stopping at every block.”

    While the pre-emption thing is a great idea, you have to do something about this problem too.

    One of the advantages (well, maybe disadvantage, depending on how you look at it) cars have is they don’t have cater to everyone. To drive a car you need to be not too young, not too old, more or less physically able and sighted. But we require that busses work for *everyone*. I wish we had better services for those who can’t walk a few blocks to a bus stop, so that the bus worked better for the majority of people who can. Maybe one of the reasons people like rail is that it doesn’t stop every block.

    1. Justin FoellJustin Foell Post author

      Yeah, changing the spacing of stops from 1/8 mile to 1/4 mile (along with preemption) would probably go a long way to speed up service. Seems like a no-brainer, wish they would try it.

        1. Justin FoellJustin Foell Post author

          In London I think they’ve done away with cash transactions on buses. Everyone uses the Oyster card.

          IIRC their buses have extra-wide doors as well so people can get on/off at the same time.

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I’m gonna guess that there is a lot of resistance to this because you’d have to throw out all your Twin Cities’ traffic models and projections? Lord knows we can’t come up with new ones, where LOS marginally drops at intersections up and down the routes (but speeds for buses improve markedly).

    1. Walker

      We need these for bicycles. Before you leave on a trip you can tell the system how much you’re willing to pay in extra fees for pre-emption. At each intersection the system figures out the ‘bids’ from people coming from various directions and pre-empts accordingly. Oh wait, you don’t need this for bicycles because huge numbers of them can relatively efficiently negotiate their way through each other at intersections.

  4. Froggie

    I doubt every signal in the Metro (and certainly not every signal in Minneapolis) has pre-emption technology. A good way to determine would be to see if they have the flashing white light installed on one of the mast arms (like along Central Ave in Columbia Heights). If that doesn’t exist, it’s a good bet the signal doesn’t have the technology.

    1. Jeremy HopJeremy Hop

      I have never seen a signal in the Metro Area not having the floodlight and strobe sensor installed—this is the preemption technology. Any nitwit can go online and buy a strobe that flashes at the proper frequency to make the signals change green. Of course if your caught doing this as a regular citizen, who knows how much that’ll cost ya. Look it up. Its really not rocket science folks.

      Its not the signal timing, its the fact that a rider won’t get off with another rider, even it the stop is only a block away from where they would have normally got off…they will just ride that extra 600 ft and signal for a stop. These buses would run much better if they ran an extra bus (limited stop) during a broader part of the day.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Actually a lot of old Minneapolis signals (including 28th and Blaisdell, where that cop killed a motorist last summer while running a red light) do not have Opticom (the white lights/override) installed. As a general rule, if there are no overhead signal arms on any of the legs of the intersection, Opticom is not installed. But of course, you can always look for the little white light… there are certainly exceptions.

        I believe all Hennepin County signals of the “curved signal arm” style have them installed. There are a handful of older ones around outside Minneapolis, but I think they’re less prevalent than within Minneapolis boundaries.

  5. Ian Bicking

    Another kind of preemption I’d like to see: if city buses had a little side flap like school buses, except it would be a “yield to merging bus” sign – when the sign goes out, you don’t try to overtake the bus. Wouldn’t even have to have any special legal meaning, the sign itself I think would be enough.

    1. Mike Hicks

      I believe most Metro Transit buses have a fixed yield sign (decal) on the back of the bus — Adding some LEDs to that to make it flash as the bus is pulling out might be a good idea. I’m not sure how to get that to trigger properly, though.

  6. Alex

    “Why not do it all of the time to instead see how much time can be shaved off the schedule permanently?”

    I’m going to write my council member, mayor, county commissioner, met council rep, governor, and legislators and demand this.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      you could even do it more subtly, by just tightening the schedule so that it was always “late,” and thus always had to use its signal priority switch.

  7. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I agree with others than the far, far bigger problem is too-frequent bus stops and on-board payment collection/verification. Even the Go-to cards slow things up. Off-board payment with random control (as on light rail) would be far better.

    The Red Line is fitted with signal override capabilities as well. Arguably this is more valuable in the second/third-ring suburbs, where a traffic signal can go through far more cycles before returning to the green you need. (Due to longer yellows and red overlap, and protected left turn cycles.)

  8. John Krause

    Reducing the number of stops, giving the bus traffic signal priority, and giving the busiest lines a dedicated lane are all good ways of making the bus go faster.

    It’s worth noting that there’s a huge financial incentive to increase the operating speed. When you cut the time it takes for a bus to make its loop in half, you can cut the number of buses and drivers in half. Of course, faster service attracts more riders, which reduces traffic congestion and pollution.

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