What’s Wrong With the Downtown Stoplights?

People are seeing red.

In terms of gridlock, Milwaukee has it way better than most major cities around the country. But still we complain. One of the most vitriolic topics in recent months? The traffic lights Downtown.

“Has anyone noticed that the stoplights Downtown are not in sync anymore?” says a recent post to the Milwaukee Subreddit. “It’s like a damn maze now!” Which begs the question: Are traffic lights supposed to be synchronized? Traditional wisdom holds that, going the speed limit, one should be able to pass through almost all green lights, barring interference from traffic.

According to Joseph Blakeman, senior traffic engineer for the city of Milwaukee, that’s the ideal state for traffic lights and one that’s often realized on the city’s quieter streets and avenues. Downtown, however, the traffic lights are way too close together to line up in the way people are wanting. Making a daisy chain out of eastbound Wisconsin Avenue’s green lights, he says, “is going to make westbound miserable, and possibly cause issues going north and south.”

Further complicating the picture is that all traffic lights Downtown are set to 90-second cycles (as opposed to the standard 60 seconds used in most other areas), partly to allow more time for pedestrians. That means catching a yellow and sitting all the way through to green can seem like a “long [expletive] light.”

The city could look into expanding its use of automated sensors to control traffic lights (it already uses some), but the advantages are “vanishingly small” and could cost as much as $25,000 per intersection, according to Blakeman. Lights are already programmed to cycle through a.m. and p.m. rush patterns and to adapt to the amount of traffic associated with different days of the week, which can be remarkably predictable.

“A Monday is going to act like a Monday,” he says.

‘Seeing Red’ appears in the October 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning October 2, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.