KC Streetcar

Smart traffic signals have the capability to give priority to KC streetcars

An innovative traffic signal approach should help Kansas City streetcars and other traffic move faster along the route.
An innovative traffic signal approach should help Kansas City streetcars and other traffic move faster along the route. The Kansas City Star

Some Kansas City streetcar passengers have been asking: Why can’t the vehicles get traffic signal priority and avoid red lights along downtown’s Main Street route?

Answer: The streetcars can and do get some signal priority already. And they could get more in the future.

Thank an innovative, “smart” and adaptive signal system now in use along the 2.2-mile streetcar route from River Market to Union Station.

But the system is being used judiciously and tweaked to accommodate other traffic needs such as motorists, pedestrians and bikes.

“It’s balanced, and it’s a work in progress,” said Tom Gerend, executive director of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority.

“The intent is to make the system more intelligent and more efficient,” said Ralph Davis, deputy public works director for Kansas City.

Gerend, Davis and members of the Kansas City Council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee heard a presentation Wednesday from Jesse Manning of Rhythm Engineering, the Lenexa firm providing the In Sync system.

Manning likened the system to the old days when a traffic cop would direct motorists and others through an intersection based on traffic volume. Now the signals rely on cameras and “artificial intelligence” to see an intersection in real time, count the cars and pedestrians, and help adjust signal timing to move them smoothly and safety along.

The system equipment cost the Kansas City Public Works Department about $700,000 and is being used to minimize delays and stops at 21 intersections along the streetcar route. But it also must accommodate motorists, reduce side street delays, and provide safe pedestrian and bicycle service.

That doesn’t mean it will change a red light to green just to speed up the streetcar, Davis said. What it does mean is that if a streetcar is approaching an intersection where a light is about to turn red, it can lengthen the green light time a few seconds so the operator doesn’t have to brake hastily.

Manning said that already the adaptive signals have helped reduce average northbound motor vehicle commutes on the route during the morning peak time from 7 minutes, 44 seconds to 5 minutes, 22 seconds. The southbound commute at evening peak time was also reduced but by a lesser amount.

Gerend and others said the adaptive controls will continue to be monitored and adjusted as the streetcar system — now in its sixth week of carrying passengers — becomes a more routine part of downtown traffic patterns.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley