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Transportation Research Procedia 00 (2017) 000–000
Transportation Research Procedia 27 (2017) 420–427

20th EURO Working Group on Transportation Meeting, EWGT 2017, 4-6 September 2017,
Budapest, Hungary

Connecting microscopic traffic simulation and LISA+ external

signal control
Mirko Barthauer a*, Bernhard Friedrich a
Technische Universität Braunschweig, Institute of Transportation and Urban Engineering, Hermann-Blenk-Str. 42, 38108 Braunschweig,


Many researchers and traffic engineers have been working on optimizing signal control with respect to its effects on traffic flow
and externalities like emissions. As large field studies for traffic management are not sustainable and actuated control strategy
becomes complex, its evaluation is done with microscopic traffic simulation. However, their integrated signal control model often
impedes implementing the custom control strategy in contrast to signal planning software. Making both types of software cooperate
offers valuable perspectives to develop and evaluate a custom control strategy more efficiently. In this work, an overview of signal
control and how it can be modeled in microscopic traffic simulation is given. Then, the signal planning software LISA+ and a
microscopic traffic simulation (Aimsun in this case) are connected to allow for external signal control. LISA+ offers a virtual signal
controller to communicate with external applications via network. Aimsun sends information about the chosen signal program and
the detected vehicles to the controller and receives back the signal states for the next simulation second. This concept is presented
in detail taking into account the communication protocol and the implementation on the Aimsun side. A case study with time-
dependent actuated signal control is included as well.

© 2017 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V.

Peer-review under responsibility of the scientific committee of the 20th EURO Working Group on Transportation Meeting.

Keywords: microscopic traffic simulation; signal control; software in the loop

* Corresponding author. E-mail address:

2214-241X © 2017 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V.

Peer-review under responsibility of the scientific committee of the 20th EURO Working Group on Transportation Meeting.

2352-1465 © 2017 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V.

Peer-review under responsibility of the scientific committee of the 20th EURO Working Group on Transportation Meeting.
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1. Introduction

1.1. Motivation

Many researchers have been working on optimizing signal control with respect to its effects on traffic flow and
externalities like emissions. As in transportation science, large field studies for new infrastructure and traffic
management are not sustainable; many research questions are answered by using various types of models. Firstly,
analytic formulas like those in the German HBS guideline (FGSV 2015b) have been developed out of field studies for
evaluating traffic quality of fixed-time signal programs. Nowadays, growing complexity of actuated signal control
leads to microscopic traffic simulation as the tool of choice. It can theoretically reproduce any signal control logic and
the traffic flow based on single vehicle-driver units.
However, nor is signal control the only argument for microscopic traffic simulation nor do common software of
this field focus intensively on the aspect of signal control. Apart from fixed-time signal control, the supported types
of actuated signal control vary between different simulation tools. Especially when it comes to completely customized
control logic, the user is often confronted with a big effort to (re)implement it from scratch. From a different point of
view, signal control design is done with specific software, which already offers many helpful editors and standardized
control logic elements. This software may also provide a model of the signal controller with input and output
Coupling traffic simulation software with other programs has been done for several reasons, including modeling
of emissions (Hausberger/Krajzewicz 2014), communication (Tchouankem et. al. 2012) or fine-scale vehicle
dynamics (Langenberg 2015). Hirschmann et. al. (2010) have introduced the adaptive traffic network control called
MOTION to VISSIM traffic simulation by means of an interface for external signal control. They also used the system
to calculate emissions with a dedicated model. Some traffic simulation companies have added specific interfaces to
allow for external signal control. However, as they each provide only a small subset of the available interfaces, many
users cannot use this function. Within this work, a coupling of the microscopic traffic simulation Aimsun 8.1
(Transport Simulation Systems 2015) and an external signal control developed in the signal program design software
LISA+ 5.2 (Schlothauer & Wauer GmbH 2016) is presented. Given the open structure of the signal control part, it
could also be easily adapted to other applications like other traffic or driving simulations. Both Barthauer and
Friedrich (2017) and Bottazzi et. al. (2017) have controlled signals externally in the traffic simulation SUMO by
means of the LISA+ simulated controller.

1.2. Methodology

Different categories of software to support traffic engineers in their tasks have emerged in the last decades. Besides
traffic simulation of varying detail, dedicated signal control design and traffic planning programs are available. There
are questions addressed in more than one category, but signal control and signal program design is supported best in
the dedicated software.
Firstly, a short overview of the general signal program structure is given. Secondly, advantages and disadvantages
of well-known traffic simulations and signal control design software with respect to signal control are presented. Then,
the already existing concept of coupling the traffic simulation VISSIM 7 with an external control generated by the
signal control design program LISA+ 5.2 is described and adapted to Aimsun 8.1 (see paragraph 3). Finally, in
paragraph 4 an example intersection is used to evaluate the coupling framework and to show its features.

2. State of scientific knowledge

2.1. Signal program structure

German signal control guidelines “RiLSA” (FGSV 2015a, p.38) contain the general concepts and constraints for
their domain. Together with the traffic quality indicators defined in the “HBS” (FGSV 2015b), they guide the traffic
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engineer during the design and the evaluation of signal programs for a specific intersection. Table 1 categorizes signal
programs at the macroscopic (network) and the microscopic (local intersection) level. Both levels can be relevant, as
coordination of actuated intersections has become common practice.

Table 1: Signal program classification (adapted from FGSV 2015a)

control level control strategy activation changing elements of the signal program
when actuated
time- traffic- cycle time phase number of green offset
dependent dependent sequence phases periods time
program selection  
macroscopic traffic-dependent permissive 
period plan
green time adjustment 
microscopic phase on request 
phase swapping 
unrestricted actuation     

Especially the microscopic actuated signal programs can become complex because they usually consist of a
combination of at least two of the listed prototype control strategies. On the intersection level, phase-oriented signal
programs provide a range of properties to change with actuation. Non-conflicting signal groups with simultaneous
green periods are grouped in a phase. Their green period can be adapted based on detector measures like gaps. Some
phases may be only shown on request, e.g. for public transport. Another way of public transport priority can be reached
by changing the phase sequence. The resulting control logic is documented in flow diagrams or structure charts (see
FGSV 2015a, p. 39) together with a domain-specific programming language.

2.2. Signal control design software

Administrations of big cities run hundreds of signalized intersections. To facilitate signal control design and its
operation, domain-specific software have been developed. Two well-known products of this kind are Sitraffic Office
(Siemens AG 2016) and LISA+. They include editors to define signal control as well as exporting facilities for real
world signal controllers and traffic simulations. This way, signal programs can be evaluated by means of simulation
before being applied to the real signal controller. Signal design software implements the structure presented in
paragraph 2.1.

2.3. Signal control in microscopic traffic simulation

There are many other application fields for microscopic traffic simulation apart from checking new signal control
strategies. Concordantly, their users may be researchers, students, engineers from places all over the world. In contrast,
most signalized intersections are run by big entities like city administrations or port authorities that have been
developing their own standards or have committed to one specific signal control producer. In general, well-known
microscopic traffic simulation packages offer multiple options to control the traffic lights. However, many options
only allow modeling a subset of the different signal control types from Table 1 while others require consequent
programming knowledge or costly additional software. Usually, some of the possibilities below are available:

 internal logic for fixed-time signal program

 time-dependent signal program changes
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 parameterizable microscopic signal control based on predefined rules like gap-based green time adjustment
 access to low-level signal control via an Application Programming Interface (API)
 separate interface for external controllers

Table 2 shows by which means signal control can be influenced in some popular microscopic traffic simulation

Table 2: Signal control options in microscopic traffic simulation software

software fixed- time-dependent predefined rules Application Programming supports external

time program selection for microscopic control strategy Interface (API) controller
Aimsun    Micro API several
SUMO    TraCI

Even if some of the prototype signal control types from Table 1 are supported directly, like green time adjustment
in Aimsun and SUMO, many are not. As one can see, the more complex control logic is sourced out to external
programs, either using a general API or a specific external controller. VISSIM (PTV AG 2015) offers a dedicated
graphical editor to build local actuated signal control logic as a flow diagram with the VAP language. A similar
approach is implemented in signal program design software like LISA+.

2.4. Coupling microscopic traffic simulation with external programs during runtime

In case of a distributed simulation system, there may be one component which cares about the traffic flow and at
least another about the signal control. Communication between them becomes very important as both depend on each
other. Usually, some kind of computer network communication is used together with dedicated protocols: One
component is considered as a server waiting for requests from a client and returning an answer. The signal controller
may act as a server and provide the microscopic traffic simulation with the next signal state. This kind of
communication is used when controlling intersections in VISSIM by LISA+ simulated controllers.

3. Concept for coupling Aimsun with LISA+ simulated controller

Research institutions often rely on multiple traffic simulation packages, as each product has its strengths and
weaknesses depending on the research question. For example, the Aimsun Micro API allows to model ITS applications
easily but the simulation doesn’t have any straightforward freely configurable actuated signal control. Therefore, it
was decided to create an adapter for the LISA+ simulated controller already in use with VISSIM. As it is based on
communication via the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), the simulated controller can be used with any program
implementing the predefined message types.
The LISA+ controller needs to know which signal program to show. Additionally, one can switch on separate actuated
logic for public transport and for private transport. This information can be entered in Aimsun via custom object
attributes of the controlled intersections defined before running the simulation (see Figure 1). In reality, an intersection
is operated with different signal programs over the course of a day. At this stage of development, signal programs can
be selected only by clock time. Given an appropriate user interface and a program selection algorithm, one could make
it traffic-dependent very easily, as it does not make any difference in the calls to the LISA+ controller.
To allow for signal program changes during a simulation run, multiple values for one attribute can be entered in a
serialized form. “0:1;7200:2;14400:1” defines a change from signal program 1 to 2 after two simulated hours
(7200 s = 2 h) and back after another two. This syntax is valid for the other attributes, too. During the simulation run,
the LISA+ controller and the Python Micro API library exchange messages at least with the frequency of the signal
control (1/s). As there has been little documentation of the messages, they had to be recorded from a VISSIM
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simulation using the Wireshark program (Wireshark 2016) and have been interpreted with the VISSIM example in
mind. A representative UML (Unified Modeling Language) sequence diagram of exchanged messages is shown in the
left part of Figure 1.

Figure 1: Sequence diagram (left side) of messages exchanged between Aimsun Micro API and LISA+ controller (called OmlFgServer); Used
Aimsun objects and their (custom) attributes (right side)

The distributed simulation consists of Aimsun and the LISA+ simulated controller, a Java executable. Both
communicate via network comunication using SOAP: messages include a header part and a XML body. On the
Aimsun side, a Python-written Micro API library deals with sending requests and processing the answers. The right
part of Figure 1 explains the relation between the Python library and the Aimsun network: It accesses the intersection
objects (GKNode) to gather the settings for the LISA+ controller. This includes the chosen signal program, and other
options explained above. Common Aimsun and LISA+ objects are linked by their numeric identifier and written to
the Aimsun object external identifier field. By default, Aimsun detector objects (GKDetector) are not bound to a
specific signal control. As more LISA+ controlled intersections may share detectors with the same identifiers, a custom
detector attribute defines the unique relationship with the intersection. Global settings like the file directory of the
LISA+ control files and the path to the LISA+ Java executable become custom attributes of the GKScenario object.
All messages but the ones of type PutMessage are send only at the simulation start. A concise description of the
message contents follows:

 GetTaskListRequest: Ask the LISA+ controller for running tasks. A task is defined as providing the signal states
for one intersection.
 SetDataDirRequest: Inform the LISA+ controller of the directory for the LISA+ signal control export files. These
contain the actuated control logic.
 RemoveTaskRequest: Ask the LISA+ controller to end a given task. May be useful when the LISA+ controller
runs longer than one simulation run or if a signal control has been switched off.
 SetTaskRequest: Ask the LISA+ controller to provide signal states for a given signal control.
 GetObjectListRequest: Return information about the signal control components from the LISA+ controller. This
includes signal groups, detectors, signal programs, phases…
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 PutMessage: Either switch the signal control from off to on or ask for the next second’s signal states. Here, the
detector states from Aimsun are transmitted to the LISA+ controller.

As messages of the PutMessage type contain the essential information exchanged between the LISA+ controller
and Aimsun, they are described more in detail as they have been understood here:
Figure 2 illustrates the message sequence during the simulation: The traffic simulation requests the next signal state
for an intersection bound to task 9 at simulation second 192 given the options in the second curly brackets, where e.g.
actuated control can be activated. The third pair of curly brackets adds information about detector occupation. Positive
values indicate a vehicle entering the detector and negative ones mean the detector has been freed. The prefix numbers
indicate which detectors have been skipped because of inactivity: Here, only detectors 2 and 6 in the order defined by
LISA+ have registered vehicle movements. Each message sent to the LISA+ controller is followed by an answer: It
contains the signal states for cycle second 35 at simulation second 192. The third pair of curly brackets lists the signal
state per signal group in the order defined by LISA+. Here, 3 and 48 mean red and green, respectively. The fifth pair
of curly brackets indicates which phase or transition the signal controller is executing: In this case, the third phase is
active. For each simulated second, the signal states are applied to the Aimsun intersection by means of the Micro API.
Its function ECIChangeSignalGroupState allows for changing a signal group state independently of any restrictions.

Figure 2: Message sequence between traffic simulation and LISA+ controller during the simulation

4. Case study

4.1. Overview

A sample intersection had been used in Aimsun anyway during the development phase to check if the signal control
behaves as expected. Nevertheless, a simple four-leg crossing with some green period changes is not suitable to
explain the advantages of the coupling between Aimsun and LISA+ signal control. In contrast, RiLSA guidelines
include many examples (FGSV 2010) modeled after real-world sites but still representing categories from Table 1.
The chosen example intersection shown in Figure 3 has all approach lanes detected and includes protected and
permissive left turns signals. In the following paragraphs, the signal program is described as well as the test results
from Aimsun. Every variant of the signal program is based on the same phase sequence (see Figure 3) as well as the
same control logic. However, it may use a different cycle time, permission plan or different maximum green times for
the signal groups.
The general phase sequence is as follows: Only the phases 1 and 3 are shown during every cycle. In between, the
phase 2 is inserted if the headway from left exceeds a threshold and the left turn lane from the right is congested.
Similarly, phase 4 is added if the headway from top exceeds a threshold and the left turn lane from the bottom is
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Figure 3: Signal phase sequence diagram from FGSV 2010 (p. 30) and the related intersection as modelled in Aimsun 8.1

To make the signal program work in Aimsun, some adjustments have to be done with respect to the integrated
signal control. At first, the signal group names have to match the LISA+ equivalent and be unambiguous at
intersection-level. Intersections and detectors to be used with external signal control need their external and unique
identifier to be filled in. Then, the Micro API Python library has to be added to the simulation scenario and run once.
This adds the custom attributes (see Figure 1) to the Aimsun objects which consequently have to be filled in. With
these attributes set, multiple intersections can be controlled externally by the LISA+ controller using one task per
Figure 4 shows the distribution of the phase durations created with a synthetic traffic demand. The duration spreads
along the allowed time interval given by the minimum and maximum green times defined on the signal group level.
In contrast to standard signal control in Aimsun, requested phases (2 and 4) can be shown.

Figure 4: signal phase distribution of the Aimsun example scenario

Run time becomes an issue if the network contains several intersections or if the simulation models a long time
period and has to be evaluated several times. To get a first impression on how much it is influenced by the coupling
to LISA+, four network versions are compared on the same computer, using the same traffic demand:
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Table 3: run time of different simulation network configurations

Number of signal-controlled Avg. run time with Avg. run time with
intersections fixed-time control [s] external signal control [s]
1 3 36
2 6 59

As shown in Table 3, the external control slows down the simulation by a factor of around 10. Writing additional
output for debugging purpose delays the simulation run even more.

5. Conclusion and outlook

Connecting two software programs to include advantageous features of one into the other looks like an intelligent
solution for those who already use both separately. In the case of microscopic traffic simulation and signal control
design, many users may profit from easily evaluating actuated signal programs with means of microscopic traffic
simulation. The existing coupling of the VISSIM and LISA+ software has been adapted for use with Aimsun which
for now does not come with easily customizable actuated signal control. For example, optional phases only have
become possible with the external signal control. For now, only time-dependent signal program changes can be defined
writing a little bit cryptic syntax. Traffic-dependent activation of signal programs could be added by simply providing
the switching logic. However, the standard signal control in Aimsun allows for multiple programs depending on the
simulation scenario and the simulation time. At this moment, this cannot be modeled completely using the LISA+
coupling. One idea could be adding more custom attributes to the Aimsun scenario objects or by integrating the LISA+
signal control extension more into the graphical user interface. In the past, Aimsun developers have shown a big
interest in keeping their software extendable and providing tools for that. We intend to contact the
software publishers in order to make our extension available to a larger public.


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