As I approach the LaFollette city limit sign north-east bound on HWY 25-63 I begin to see it. “Oh no!” I think, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Traffic is at a standstill. I know what’s happening. It’s probably not an accident. It’s that stupid traffic light. The one at the intersection of Towe String Road and the 4 lane. Fantasies play out in my mind, most much too graphic to print. At the very least I hope that somewhere, the person who is tasked with setting the timing on the lights through this area is stuck in their own traffic jam…an eternal traffic jam.
It’s been 5 minutes and I’ve managed to travel 500 feet.
I remember clearly, there was a lack of traffic issues of this magnitude before that light went up, only the occasional accident caused this kind of delay. I know traffic volume has increased somewhat since the light was installed, but I can remember it being an immediate problem even back then.
The driver in the car beside of me appears frustrated. No doubt they’ve worked all day, maybe in Knoxville and are possibly facing their second traffic jam of the afternoon. This one is so tantalizingly close to home they can smell supper, they lay a hand across their stomach, hoping they can silence the rumbles emanating from deep inside for just a few more minutes. I mentally send the image of lightning striking a traffic light engineer their way. They look at me, seeming to read my thoughts, a slight nod of agreement and a grim smile appears on their face as they grip the steering wheel like some kind of mad fiend, jonesing for their next burger fix…even some chips would do at this point.
9 minutes later we’re approaching Wendy’s like some weird centipede that is caught in a slow motion montage worthy of a Zach Snyder flick.
We’re averaging 1.6 miles per day it seems. The hungry commuter has stopped at the Diner. I guess they couldn’t wait. A crazed woman pulls up beside me, she has a car full of children, all appear to be screaming at once. She seems to be imagining she’s in a monster truck and is simply rolling over all the cars in front of her. I empathize, I’ve been picturing my car with a giant spatula in front of it that lifts cars out of the way and sets them to the side to clear my path through the abyss.
8 more minutes have passed.
It takes 2 minutes to drive this stretch any other time of day. What’s going on? Seriously….but I know what’s going on. The monster is ahead. I’ve finally reached the light by El Pubs. This insidious lunatic of a next light is out of sync. The light stays green far longer if you’re pulling out of Towe String than it does if you’re pulling out of the Food City/El Pubs parking lot. So your light had flipped back to green, but you can’t move because the blasted Towe String light is still red and traffic has now backed up so bad and you want to scream. You’re actively hoping a tornado comes to LaFollette and takes out every traffic light in town. Deep breaths, calm thoughts….
This extra stoppage is huge. A traffic study in 2007 found that in areas of high volume, one person hitting their brakes too hard caused a chain reaction ripple several miles back that could cause a complete stoppage if more than 25 cars per mile were on a two lane road. So it’s no wonder that an out of sync light can cause traffic havoc when you’ve probably got 100 cars per mile out there.
About 3 light changes later you’re finally at the Towe String light. A place where traffic has seemingly vanished into thin air. Once past it you flow freely and normally. You look in your rear view mirror and see the people stopped, stretching into infinity. You’ve wasted 25 minutes on a 2 minute stretch of road that didn’t used to be quite so bad, even at rush hour. That was before though, before the Towe String devil sprang to life.
I’m positive I speak for many Campbell County drivers who are frustrated with this and have been for a few years. Wasted time and wasted gasoline add up over the days and days of sitting. Not to mention the sheer time off your life you are losing from stress, as you sit in a boiling rage over horrific traffic conditions.
In Los Angeles, traffic problems are legend. They found that one of the biggest issues were out of sync traffic lights. So they decided to fix it. In 2013 they synchronized all 4500 traffic lights in the city. A system was installed that allowed lights to be adaptive to traffic conditions. The lights would then sync and stay green longer in areas of heavy traffic. They’d change to red at the same time as well and each stayed red for the same amount of time. That way you didn’t have people sitting in the middle of a green light at the intersection behind a mistimed red light. A very common problem in the wake of the Towe String light.
The state will hopefully fix the issue of the timing soon. If nothing else, improved timing in the lights should make the flow a bit more smooth and somewhat faster. It actually worked very well in reducing traffic issues in Los Angeles, they saw a 16 percent increase in traffic speed and a 12 percent reduction in congestion immediately after the lights were fixed.
Portland, Oregon did the same and were able to reduce carbon emissions so much at their traffic lights that they qualified for a carbon credit that paid for their new lights. Think of that, by syncing their lights they reduced traffic jams so much that monitors at said lights were able to pick up significantly reduced emissions.
It could even be argued that the lights need to go completely. In a 2007 study it was found that 4-way stops, or even yield signs for side streets were better at preventing accidents and that traffic flowed more smoothly through them than it did at intersections with traffic lights. The ultimate though, was roundabouts. They reduced intersection accidents by a whopping 90 percent and reduced traffic congestion by 60 percent.
So to our friends at TDOT, for the sake of the mental health of the citizens of Campbell County, if you can’t install a roundabout, at least fix the traffic signals as soon as you can.