If you play it right, on some streets in Center City you can surf the “green wave.”
If you start driving at Front Street heading west on Spruce at 20 miles per hour, your car should reach Broad Street without having to stop for a red light.
This timing pattern, known as the green wave, is meant to encourage people to slow down voluntarily in order to avoid stop-and-go stoplights.
The lights have been timed this way for about a year, but nobody knew about it until last week when signs were put up alerting drivers to the system.
Both Pine and Spruce streets lost a traffic lane a year ago when they were repainted for bicycle lanes. But the green wave is designed for cars, not bikes.
“I take that route every day. I see how I can compete against the timed lights,” said John Boyle, who commutes by bicycle to his job as research director at the Greater Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition. “I find if I am starting at a red signal and going west on Spruce at Fourth, I can make about four or five lights. It’s really geared to slowing motorists down, as opposed to allowing bikes a through trip.”
Spruce and Pine streets were chosen for the green wave not because of their bike lanes, but because it’s easier to time one-way streets than two-way. Both streets also carry a significant amount of traffic.
The city is in the midst of a multiyear project to improve traffic-light patterns in Center City, though not all will be as precise as the green wave. The city is upgrading the software on one-third of its traffic signals.
“But a significant number of our signals operate on mechanicals, which are effectively clocks,” said Stephen Buckley, deputy commissioner for transportation. “On these corridors, you have to physically go out into the field and manually time them together. On these corridors, we will deploy a crew to improve synchronicity on 20 to 25 major corridors throughout the city in the next 12 to 18 months.”
Still, only Pine and Spruce streets will have the green wave. Buckley said attempting to offer such smooth sailing on other streets would be too complicated.