Smart Signals Make Drivers (and Driving) Worse

All eyes in Eugene have been on traffic lately, but at least one Eugene resident thinks we’re looking in the wrong places. Movement matters, but so does stillness. In fact, the choreography of commuting requires both. They cannot be separated.

Albert Einstein once mused that the wonder of the universe is not that stuff exists, but that there’s empty space between the stuff. Hold that thought for the next time you’re waiting at a red light.

Summer road construction projects are well underway across the region. Added to the usual workload are several special projects, making orange traffic cones as common this summer as invasive blackberry shoots.

Lanes are being carved out in west Eugene for the upcoming EmX line. Franklin Boulevard in Glenwood soon will be undergoing a major transformation. Lanes are lost temporarily at the airport to make room for the latest expansion. And, of course, Willamette Street has been restriped under the watchful gaze of citizen urban planners.

In every case, the goal is the same: move as many people as possible, as smoothly as possible, as safely as possible. Bike lanes, sidewalks, roundabouts, bus stops — we all want to get where we’re going with the least frustration possible. But that might be exactly the problem, thinks Bill Klingenberg.

Klingenberg came to Eugene from California a decade ago, retired from construction trades but still actively engaged in how the built environment shapes our lives. He reached out to me after I wrote about one south Eugene neighborhood’s higgledy-piggledy street design.

He recognized, along with many others, that the purpose of the area’s paved apostrophes was to slow the drivers. But he attributes modern drivers’ need for speed to a surprising culprit. He blames trigger-operated traffic signals. Or “traffic light Lottos,” as he fondly calls them.

A construction bid on a Sacramento intersection with these so-called smart signals opened his eyes. He pays attention when streets are sliced up so that sensors can be embedded in the pavement. He notices when lights turn red when they shouldn’t.

Before traffic lights got smart with microprocessing chips and in-pavement sensors, the things just worked. Red, green, yellow, red. Traffic engineers would set the duration for each and be done. But every once in a while during the day, and frequently late at night, drivers would find themselves sitting at a red light with no other cars in sight.

If there’s one thing we can’t stand, it’s being stopped for no good reason. Alone with our thoughts for those twenty seconds, all we can think about is where we might lodge our complaint to “fix” this “problem.”

And so, smart signals were born. But smart signals aren’t really so smart, it turns out.

The television show “Mythbusters” recently measured the efficiency of traffic lights, stop signs, and traffic circles. They deemed stops signs approximately 40 percent more efficient than traffic lights. Traffic circles moved traffic slightly better than stop signs.

Trouble is, to achieve those greater efficiencies, drivers must cooperate with one another. That may be too much to ask.

“We have taught people to drive badly, on purpose and at great expense,” Klingenberg wrote to me. “Long lines of cars idling, then jack rabbit starts with hard acceleration, only to decelerate sharply, and then sit at idle.” He lamented “the degradation of driving etiquette.”

“If cars flowed at an even pace,” he continued, “all drivers would cruise along, knowing what was coming and what was expected of them. There would not be that anxiety to speed up at the first opportunity, as they’d know it was pointless.”

Is there any road back to posting signs that say “Signals Timed for 28 MPH”? City planners told me, “probably not.” The closest thing to progress they could point out was the blinking yellow left turn arrows that are showing up around town.

That doesn’t address the synchronized signal issue, but it could rekindle some of the driver discretion that we lost when protected left turn arrows were added. With any luck, drivers may one day be ready (again) to negotiate four-way stop signs.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.