Urban planning’s black eye
In the last two columns, we looked at the runaway proliferation of traffic signals in American communities large and small — even though, contrary to myth, their installation can actually slow down traffic flow and increase accidents. We also discovered that enlightened traffic departments often find simpler means of traffic control superior to signals.
Ironically, these simple means have been around for almost a century, but they’ve been continually displaced by all the fancy hardware so profitable to signal manufacturers. Under relentless lobbying from these companies, orthodox traffic engineers have been taught to reach for complex solutions even when simple ones work better.
One of these simpler, better, cheaper solutions is two-way stop control, or TWSC. If the method sounds obscure, the means isn’t: It’s your basic old stop sign. With TWSC, the main road doesn’t stop, while the side streets always do. Pedestrians have an actual rather than just a nominal right of way, since they don’t have to wait around until vehicle cross traffic gets a red light. Before traffic signals became the holy grail of traffic engineering, many communities used to get by perfectly well with this system.
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Reintroducing TWSC would obviate countless complicated signal arrays installed at intersections with minimal cross traffic. Although this notion might strike terror into huge signal manufacturers such as Siemens, even the Transportation Engineering Institute concedes that TWSC "can accommodate low traffic volumes with much less delay than traffic signals."
Moreover, when traffic is too heavy for TWSC, there’s still a simpler solution than planting yet more signals. This one, too, is familiar — all-way stop control, or AWSC. It’s the standard fallback arrangement when traffic signals break down: Temporary stop signs are placed on each corner of the intersection. Now, if you’ve ever noticed that traffic seems to flow more smoothly when the signals are broken than when they’re working, it’s not your imagination — the Transportation Engineering Institute confirms that "AWSC treats the cross street movements more favorably, without the wasted time associated with traffic signals."
Implementing TWSC or AWSC is cheaper by several magnitudes than installing a traffic signal, which nowadays costs between $80,000-$100,000 or more depending on bells and whistles such as crosswalk signals and the like. Add to this the perpetual expense of maintenance and the cost of electricity to power signals 24 hours a day, and you’re talking about a serious drain on taxpayer dollars.
Considering what we’ve heard in the past three columns — and not from critics, but from traffic departments themselves — there’s little doubt that, in many situations, stop signs are simpler, cheaper, safer and more efficient than traffic signals. And we haven’t even touched upon other viable traffic control options such as roundabouts, or even — dare I say it? — the shocking possibility of occasionally having no controls at all.
So much for the myths that keep us all in thrall to "signaldom." Given that America is already overrun with countless unnecessary signals, it’s reasonable to ask who really benefits from their continuing proliferation. Too often the answer is: not you.
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Copyright 2010 Arrol Gellner