Monday, November 24, 2014

THE TRAFFICKERS: Part Three of Three Parts

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. 

The humble stop sign: It costs about one-tenth
of the usual monstrous array of traffic signals.
and is safer to boot.
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. 

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. 

A lovely traffic roundabout near my home in
Berkeley, California, which very neatly handles
an intersection of six busy streets.
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 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.

Monday, November 17, 2014

THE TRAFFICKERS Part Two of Three Parts

Last time we looked at why so many American traffic engineers continue to install vast and expensive signal arrays on virtually every urban intersection, even those that are small and insignificant, and even though most of these signals work poorly at best. It’s a pointless and wasteful practice, and doubly so in this era of tight civic budgets. But don’t take my word for it--ask the exceptionally clear-headed traffic department in Arlington, Virginia:

Thanks, traffic engineers.
“Installed under inappropriate conditions, a traffic signal is ineffective, inefficient, and a potential danger to motorists and pedestrians. Signals that are installed when no legitimate need exists often generate an increase in vehicle stops, traffic delays, fuel consumption, traffic accidents, and motorist disrespect for other traffic signals.” 

On its web site, the Arizona Department of Transportation puts it even more bluntly:

“Traffic signals should be used only where lesser forms of control have proven ineffective, since signals almost always create more ‘overall intersection delay.’ 

If this awkward fact is apparent even to many traffic engineers, why do so many cities relentlessly continue to install more, bigger, and costlier traffic signals, often in locations that see barely a trickle of traffic? 

Traffic engineers claim that they install signals to satisfy public demand, but common sense would tell you that most users of public roads--pedestrians included--are far from anxious to see even more signals impeding their movement. The noisy few who do clamor for more signals--usually under the banner of greater safety--are in for a surprise. Contrary to standard dogma, intersections with signals are generally no safer than those without, and in fact may even be more dangerous. Again, the Arizona DOT: 

Graph comparing traffic fatalities at intersections with
a) traffic signals, b) signage, and (c) no controls at all.
Purple represents urban areas, maroon rural ones.
Compare traffic fatalities for signalized intersections
(first column) versus no controls at all (last column).
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, 2007.
“While many people realize that traffic signals can reduce the number of angle collisions at an intersection, few realize that signals can also cause an increase in other types of accidents (it has been well documented that other types of accidents, notably rear-end collisions, usually increase when a signal is installed)...When there is no angle accident problem at an intersection...the installation of traffic signals can actually cause a deterioration in the overall safety at the intersection.” 
Furthermore, Arizona’s DOT states:

“Because of the widespread (public) belief that traffic signals offer the solution to all intersection traffic control and accident problems, a number of signals have been installed nationwide where no legitimate operational warrant exists. Traffic records clearly show the attitudes and misunderstandings which sometimes lead to unjustified installations should be resisted.”

Yet not all traffic departments are so enlightened. Many are too deeply invested in all that complex and expensive signal hardware to offer simpler solutions even when they exist. For their part, signal manufacturers want to sell more of their product, not less, and they put considerable effort into convincing traffic engineers that more is always better. These two forces along will guarantee that redundant signal installations will continue unless the public demands simpler, cheaper, and more effective solutions. 

 Next time, we’ll look at a few such options--including replacing signals with nothing at all.

Monday, November 10, 2014

THE TRAFFICKERS Part One of Three Parts

You’re approaching an intersection late at night, and you’re the only car on the road for a half mile around. What happens? The traffic light turns red just before you get there, because the purportedly “sophisticated” traffic control system is too dumb to sense what is obvious to the eye: No one is coming the other way.  The signal blindly shuttles through its motions no matter what the external situation. So you sit idling in the empty intersection, your engine wasting gasoline and spewing exhaust, while the green lights glow magnanimously toward cross traffic that isn’t there.

It's one AM, there's not a car
within ten blocks, and this is the signal
you're given at the intersection.
Think about this for a moment: If computers, cars, or coffee makers worked as poorly as America’s traffic signals do, their makers would promptly be laughed off the market. Not so with traffic signals. Despite being quite probably the most inept mechanisms in common use today, signals continue to proliferate, thanks to the many traffic engineers who accept abysmal performance as the norm.

Mind you, your taxes have paid for those signals just as surely as you’ve paid for your car or your computer. What you’re getting for this investment--typically on the order of $80,000-$100,000 or more per intersection, depending on the bells and whistles, is a level of technology that barely qualifies as twentieth century, let alone twenty-first.

But don’t take my word for it. Even so gentle a critic as the Institute of Transportation Engineers--hardly opponents of signaldom--concedes:

“There are about 300,000 traffic signals in the United States alone and over 75% of them could be improved by updating equipment or adjusting the timing.” 

This admission is a marvel of understatement, but it certainly accounts for the signal in my late-night example. That just leaves those other 225,000 poorly functioning signals across the nation, many of them no doubt in your town.
Look familiar?
This is a traffic signal in Washington, DC in 1926.
Almost a century later, traffic signals still use
essentially the same technology this one did.
The fact that traffic signals need improvement has been obvious for almost a century now, yet in all that time practically nothing of consequence has been done about it. America’s first traffic signal was installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914; it used the illuminated words “STOP” and “MOVE”.  Around 1920,  a Detroit policeman named William Potts came up with the familiar red/yellow/green signal.  Since that time, there’s been no fundamental improvement in the way signals work--only more of them to contend with.  

Actually, the very earliest signals probably worked better than most modern ones--they were operated by a man  in a sort of elevated phone booth overlooking the intersection.  He decided who came and went based on the traffic flow from moment to moment--something modern, so-called automated signals still seem utterly incapable of pulling off. Despite the wonders that computers have wrought all around us, and even though coordinating traffic flow would seem the perfect task for a computer, this aim has apparently flummoxed the traffic signal industry. Their products remain nearly as dumb as ever.

But the real point is not that traffic signals need improvement--we’ve known that for nearly a century. Rather, we should take a closer look at what exactly signals do for us, and whether we need so many of them in the first place. We’ll do just that next time, and the answers might surprise you.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


 Guessing the future has probably occupied people since the beginning of time. Yet, ponder as we might, reality seldom turns out very close to our predictions. Some things change much more slowly than expected, while others change in ways we couldn’t have imagined. 

Some of our fancied futures are bright, some are not. In his cautionary tale “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, George Orwell, writing from the vantage point of 1948, speculated on a sinister time in which hapless citizens were under the complete control of an omniscient government. What a relief, then, that the most notable thing 1984 actually brought was the Macintosh computer. 

On the other hand, director Stanley Kubrick’s then-disquieting film “2001: A Space Odyssey” turned out to be a good deal less frightening than the real year did. In Kubrick’s 2001, after all, the most menacing thing was a smartass computer.

Disneyland's House of the Future:
It was Monsanto's dream, but not
necessarily anyone else's
The late 1960s television documentary, “The 21st Century,” foresaw people flitting around in personal jet packs, among other things. Alas, here in the actual 21st century, most of us still get around in beat up Toyotas. 

As for architecture, one of the most memorable conjectures about things to come was the House of the Future, constructed at Disneyland in 1957. Jointly designed by the chemical giant Monsanto, MIT, and Disney, the reinforced-polyester structure was meant to demonstrate how Americans might live in the distant year 1986. Its major talking point: The house consisted of 99.97% artificial materials, including plastic windows. plastic dishes, and plastic clothes in the closet. 

As usual, there were many nonstarters in its predicted roster of gee-whiz features. The kitchen, for example, boasted an ultrasonic dishwasher, along with “atomic food preservation”, whose purpose I dare not imagine. Yet many of the home’s innovations now sound familiar: hands-free, push button telephones with automatic dialing, sprayed urethane foam insulation, nylon carpeting, and foam-cushioned flooring, all of which have come to pass in one form or another. 

Moreover, two of its predictions were spot on: the then-unheard of microwave oven in its kitchen, and the giant-sized television/movie screen that dominated its living room.

In general, though--no doubt to Monsanto’s chagrin--the home’s 100 percent-synthetic theme turned out to be far off the mark for the world of 1986. Indeed, even by the mid-Sixties, the idea of an all-plastic house was already looking a wee bit tawdry, This was, after all, the era of Hippiedom and the nascent ecology movement. Saddled with this increasingly doubtful vision of the future, Disney closed the attraction and razed the house in 1967.
The Innoventions Dream Home:
Maybe 1957 wasn't so bad after all.

But the story doesn’t end there. In 2008, Disneyland unveiled an updated take on its House of the Future, known as the Innoventions Dream Home. This time, it was sponsored by Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, LifeWare and the home builder Taylor Morrison. Ironically described as having “a more modern and accessible interior”, it's perhaps more accurate to say that this concept of tomorrow looked like a casino’s version of yesterday, but with electronic gimmicks. As the Associated Press put it:

“The 5,000-square-foot home...will look like a suburban tract home outside. But inside it will feature hardware, software and touch-screen systems that could simplify everyday living.”

A 5,000 square foot suburban tract home? Systems that “could” simplify living? I think I liked the old future better.