Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

A Traffic Light Out, an Intersection Improved

Dateline: 9:05 pm May 6, 2011 Filed under:

My colleague Charles Marohn from Strongtowns forwarded me this excellent video entitled “Roads Unfit for People.” It features a very well done look at an intersection in London where a traffic signal was removed. It may seem counterintuitive, as pointed out in the video, but the intersection became safer after the removal of the light.

Watch the cars, bikes and pedestrians navigate the intersection and you’ll see this delicate dance of everyone using caution and allowing each other to proceed through in a somewhat orderly manner – again counterintuitive at first but logical when you think about it.

Now watch this video on You Tube that I took today at 38th and Hiawatha, near my home. I call it “You Go, No You Go.” True, the traffic signal was out (just blinking red – treat it like a stop sign). It has been that way all week. But the similarities to the resulting behaviour was uncannily like that seen in the London example.
Believe me, a four way stop sign at that intersection is perhaps not the best long term solution, but….

…But allow me a moment to point out the “dance.” As you can see, the traffic is backed up to Lake Wobegon, but that’s not the point. At the actual intersection, everyone is taking turns and pedestrians and bikes are almost on equal footing, if you will. Everyone is stopping. Everyone is looking. The train goes by, the gates raise, cars cross north to south, the eastbound car and bus pull up to Hiawatha, pedestrians cross to the median, one of them dashing across the entire street as the northbound vehicles are coming across, It is a dance. A bit clumsy, but a dance.

And a funny dance at times. You go, no you go. That’s what half the drivers seemed to be saying this week. They were used to zoning out there – red: stop, green: go. What the hell!? Now I have to think about it and be careful? I’m taking Minnehaha Avenue instead! As I watched the traffic before I started filming, one car pulled up to the blinking red lights, windows open. I could hear the passenger giving instructions – “who goes? who goes? OK go! Aaah, don’t crash!” Bikers especially woudl get to the intersection and look left, right, left again, behind, above! Trust nobody!

As a biker taking my kids to preschool every day in the Burley, I have to say I kind of prefer it this way. I cross that beast of a street on a typical day, and frequently, while sitting on the island between the right turn lane and the traffic streaming by at 45 miles per hour, I feel, um, insecure. I have visions of how on earth to try and jump out of the way of an errant car, while still saving my children in the trailer behind me. It isn’t fun. Sure, it has been confusing for us this week, but at least at the intersection everyone is moving slow and for the most part, paying attention. I like that. I like that a lot.

One difference between the videos (other than the lack of production quality of mine) is in the London example, it is a pretty narrow set of streets. There is not a lot of room there. You won’t go racing through unless you are Jason Bourne evading, well, whoever he is evading. With Hiawatha, it is a big principal arterial that “reads” like a highway. People feel like they should go fast, and are used to doing so (at least racing between lights), but when they are forced to slow down because the traffic signal is malfunctioning, dare I say the intersection is safer as a result!? Any accident there will be less severe, on average, because of slower speeds.

In London, they also make a very good point, and one we cannot ignore – the intersection featured has pretty low traffic counts. And so this wonderful urban experiment could perhaps be applied elsewhere in Minneapolis, at an intersection with fewer cars but a lot of pedestrians and bikes – 43rd and Upton in Linden Hills, for example!

Still, here is the thought sticking in my mind: Sure, I avoided the intersection this week while in my car, but I actually looked forward to crossing the intersection on my bike. It felt better, safer. Here I was, encouraged to bike or walk because the crosswalk was better, and correspondingly I was discouraged from driving. What does that tell us about the priorities we put on different modes of transportation and how we manage it?

38th and Hiawatha needs a solution that makes it not only safer to cross on foot or bike, but also feel safer to do so. Everyone that agrees with me should contact their city council member and let their voice be heard.

You go. No you go.

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