Reverse Engineering Pedestrian Safety in Boerum Hill

AWS_stopsign.jpgThey are putting up a traffic light on my corner this week. It’s one of the last intersections in Boerum Hill with four-way stop signs, at Bond and Wyckoff Streets, and I can’t imagine who thought this was a good idea.

It would seem obvious that stop signs are much preferable to a traffic light in this type of a neighborhood setting, especially where two residential streets meet. Anyone who drives in New York City, as I do all too often, knows that most motorists speed up when as they approach a green light to make it through the intersection and hopefully catch the next light at the other end of the block.

This means that a large percentage of traffic moving down my block will now be going significantly faster than it did before, because with the stop sign, every car used to stop, or slow to a near stop, before proceeding. People already use my street as a cut-through from Cobble Hill to Park Slope, and this will only make matters worse.

It is true that a stop sign is not heeded in the same way a red light is, but as someone who walks through that intersection almost every day, frequently with small children in tow, I cannot remember a time when I had any trouble at all crossing safely.

AWS_workers2.jpgIn fact, it is easier in a lot of ways to work out the dynamic with an approaching or waiting car when at a stop-controlled intersection. At a stop sign, most drivers are looking for pedestrians and other cars because there is no traffic light telling them they have "the green light" to blast through the intersection. The same thing was true for me as a pedestrian. Approaching the curb, I frequently made eye contact with drivers, who would often wave me across the street. The stop signs forced drivers and walkers to interact in a human relationship, however cursory. With a traffic signal, the intersection is governed from the top down and there is no longer any need for human interaction. One of the results is that the intersection is a whole lot less safe.

What I’d like to know is: What city agency or official made this change and why? If one car in ten thousand is speeding through the stop sign at 2:00 a.m., will a red light make any difference to that scofflaw? If pedestrian safety is the concern, there are many other tools the city could use to make the intersection safer, including street narrowing, regularly re-striping the crosswalk or building curb extensions to shorten crossing distances. These options are no more expensive or difficult than installing and maintaining a new traffic signal. Lastly, why isn’t such a decision the topic of at least a conversation with the community where the pros and cons of such things can be weighed out?

  • ddartley

    Is there any place where information like what you’re seeking about the who/why/when in that case is made public? Like, is there some part of the DOT’s web site where people can search for/read about planned projects? There certainly should be, don’t you all think?

  • P

    Indeed- traffic lights are to make car speeds increase not to slow them down.

  • someguy

    DOT’s website is awful. If only it were half as informative and user-friendly as the Department of City Planning’s. I don’t think that information is available, ddartley, as it’s not required by law AFAIK..

  • My only guess is that they did a traffic count and decided it finally met the Federal minimum threshold or something. I know lots of drivers that go to great lengths to avoid lights because you have to wait so long if you just miss it. And they prefer stop signs because at least you keep moving a bit.

    I can never figure it out, but even if something is slower, people would rather be in constant motion than stop and go. Nothing is more frustrating it seems than to be completely motionless fro just a second. It’s the same with pedestrians and cyclists and mass transit riders. There must be some universal human drive to always be in forward motion.

  • I’ve also heard that the cost of a new traffic light (they recently put one in on my corner – Pacific & Hoyt) is $40,000. Can anyone verify that?

    Andy, I couldn’t agree more. However, I know a lot of people who think that stop signs are kind of scary. When I was in college, the campus was covered with 4-way stop intersections, and drivers were always screwing up the right-of-way. But it’s the extra thought required that makes it a more humane approach.

  • Frank

    I would bet that there is a contract out there for Petrocelli to install x number of traffic lights, so they go and find spots to put traffic lights. Or something like that.

  • mfs

    i bet glenn is right. traffic lights are usually mandated when traffic exceeds a particular rate at intersections.

  • land

    They just did the same thing on my corner — Smith St and Wyckoff St. The light has been up for about a week and the traffic, and honking, and idling trucks, are MUCH MUCH more annoying now. It seems that drivers get angry when they see a red light in front of them. The old stop sign worked perfectly well. There wasn’t a lot of traffic before the light, but now the volume is growing fast.

  • land

    P.S. San Francisco functions perfectly will with hundreds of four-way-stop sign intersections on all but the busiest streets. Just FYI.

  • Land – the only thing worse than a red light is when they see a green light but traffic is not moving. That is when the honking is at it’s absolute worst!!!

    DOT – any comments on this? What section and paragraph of the federal guidelines did this get pulled out of?

  • someguy

    May be they are adding the lights in anticipation of mitigations related to Atlantic Yards? Hard to say why they suddenly seem to be blitzing Boerum/Cobble Hill with lights where there were stops. DOT undertakes planning projects sometimes that result in actions, but they are not big plans so they aren’t publicized, they are more just small operational planning projects to try to “optimize” the system.

  • I love the traffic light at Wyckoff and Smith Streets (the other ones i could do without, but don’t bother me) I’ve driven through this intersection for over 15 yrs and during rush hour it was impossible to cross Smith st, since no one respected the box when they couldn’t go forward, now we all get a turn… may be if people were more considered of one another the lights wouldn’t be necessary, but…

  • Nicolo Macchiavelli

    The lights aren’t necessary. They increase maximum vehicle speed and decrease average speed. Mathematical formula for disaster. Entirely unfit for urban life. I live on 3rd St. and fully expect that our beloved four way stop sign will be replaced by a light when the heavy expected traffic from the Hole Foods begins. This morning two heavily armed pickup trucks blew through the red light at the other end of the block (next to the subway stop). Enforcement, enforcement enforcement.

  • Joel Potischman

    I’ve heard that DOT policy is to always install traffic lights now, not 4-way stop signs. We had been begging for 4-way stop signs at the corner of Hoyt & State for years (there were at least a few accidents a year) and they gave us a traffic light instead.

    It did take us a while to adjust to the fact that cars go faster now, but to my knowledge there hasn’t been an accident since they installed it. Yes, that doesn’t say how a 4-way stop sign would have performed, but at least the traffic light did solve our problem, so hopefully it solves yours.

  • JK

    DOT hates installing traffic lights and is notorious in community board circles for taking its time. I bet a case of beer that the community board or councilmember made it a crusade and petitioned DOT to do it. This is one of the areas of common cause between pedestrian advocates and DOT. Unfortunately, DOT does a poor job of educating the public about the disadvantages of traffic signals.

  • mick

    pedestrian crossing: a new way to be respected:

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