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Make Most Stoplights Part-Time

December 17th, 2021 by dk

Somebody asked me recently what would drive me away from Eugene. What would say that things have moved too far in the wrong direction? At the risk of making it easy for those who wish I would leave, my answer was simple. When they replace the stop signs at Broadway and Willamette with a traffic light, I’ll feel like my time here is done.

Stop signs are the apex of civilization, at least until we all learn how to navigate Glenwood’s traffic circles. In both cases, you cannot forget that there are other drivers on the road, and that they aren’t all going where you’re going. You may be required to make eye contact with them, discern their intentions, and communicate yours.

This is civilization at its best. 

Traffic lights and freeways have done their best to eliminate that awareness of other people with differing agendas. I’m proud that Eugene marks its centerpoint by requiring us to look at each other — and bicyclists and pedestrians and dogs and skateboards — before proceeding with our lives. We need more such acknowledgements, not fewer of them.

This was top-of-mind last week when I drove my son to the airport in the wee early hours. If you’ve ever driven across town in the middle of the night, you’ve seen what I saw. A simple policy shift could shorten drive times and reduce energy consumption.

We weren’t in a particular hurry but approaching airports produces a Pavlovian punctuality panic. Every minute counts, even if it doesn’t. So I noticed every single time a lone driver triggered a stoplight along the route.

Thanks to pavement sensors, stoplights don’t engage until a stopped car is present on most side streets. This removes the frustration of the stopped driver, but it prevents thoroughfare drivers from maintaining a steady speed. Because arterial roads’ lights cannot be timed, every traffic light intersection poses a potential delay. There’s nothing any driver can do about it.

We could change that. It wouldn’t be difficult or expensive and it would send a powerful message. Eugene should reprogram almost all of its stoplights to simply blink red on side streets and blink yellow on major arteries, except during those hours when a stoplight is necessary for safety and traffic flow.

There’s nothing wrong with stoplights, except that we don’t know how to undo them. They are like speed bumps. The city literally has no procedure for removing one — only for installing more. Stoplights are literal lifesavers around schools, but some are unnecessary except during school hours. 

The rest of the time, a stop sign should suffice. It might take a little more time and attention to turn left across traffic from a side street, but most drivers would experience steadier traffic flow.

If Eugene pioneered part-time traffic lights, driving habits would change. Drivers on major thoroughfares would maintain a steady speed, reducing fuel consumption. Jack rabbit starts would become unnecessary and counterproductive.

Eugene can grow bigger without becoming more complicated. A four-way stop at the center of town is sometimes all you’ll ever need.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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