Monday, May 24, 2010

Are we asking the right questions?

(Photo used under a Creative Commmons license)

Rather than ask how we can get higher red-light compliance -- by motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians -- maybe we ought to ask why compliance isn't higher in the first place. Maybe the answer is that signalized intersections are, frequently, a sub-optimal solution.

The problem signals solve is how to create gaps for traffic -- motor vehicle, bicycle, or pedestrian -- moving along one line to cross or enter traffic going along another line. A red light on Washington St. at Walnut St. creates a gap that allows cars, bikes, and pedestrians traveling along Walnut St. to cross or (cars and bikes only) join Washington St. It's that simple: traffic lights create gaps.

But, signals are a blunt tool. Frequently, there's no need for the gap -- or the length of the gap -- the light provide. I rode through Brookline late the other night and counted no fewer than 20 cars stopped east- or westbound when there was no crossing traffic whatsoever. Bicyclists regularly run lights with a plenty safe margin. And, pedestrians routinely cross against the light without any risk.

No question that motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians cross against the light when there isn't a safe gap, and sometimes with disastrous results. But, maybe that's a consequence of the natural erosion of signals' authority. When too many people see that traffic signals shouldn't apply to their particular situations, compliance is going to go down. It's human nature.

Signals are the three-eyed boys who cried wolf.

There are no easy answers. But, the search for solutions should start with the recognition that over-stopping has costs beyond promoting (potentially dangerous) non-compliance. Stopping cars for no reason wastes fuel, pollutes, creates wear and tear on cars, and wastes time.

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