Ooh! And Let’s Have Traffic Agents Wave Checkered Flags

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Via our friends at Yanko Design, which last year brought us the virtual crosswalk wall, here’s a horrible idea that’s getting a lot of online exposure: the red light countdown. In case there might be a few drivers out there who don’t already view the street grid as their personal grand prix course, this Serbian-designed signal ticks off the final seconds of the red cycle. We can practically hear the engines revving.

Touted as an eco-friendly device to allow stopped drivers to shut their motors, in the States this would serve more as an automated inducement for "t-bone" collisions. Still, most blogs we’ve looked at are raving about it. Wired also points out a couple of possible benefits for cyclists (you’ll know your bike did in fact trip the light sensor) and pedestrians (should you find yourself in the crosswalk, you’ll know how long you have left to live). Discussing the concept back in 2005 on WhyNot.net, one Brooklynite envisioned another plus:

In NYC, we could also use a red light timer, so that people could start
honking at the car in front of them several seconds before the light turns
green, rather than waiting for it to actually turn green.

Similar red-to-green countdowns are reportedly common in areas of China and Brazil, though we couldn’t find pictures. Here’s hoping they don’t make their way to the U.S. Really, why not just install these instead?

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  • clever-title

    Shouldn’t they wave green flags to start a race? 😉

    When I was in Germany a few years ago, I noticed that there was a short Red+Yellow phase between the Red and Green phases of most signals. Someone explained to me that this was for the benefit of drivers with manual transmissions, so they’d be able to put the car in neutral during the Red phase.

    We do have something of the sort already for the lead car at an intersection. The blinking crosswalk sign (sometimes with a countdown in seconds) provides the same information for those who look for pedestrians while stopped.

  • Giffen

    I don’t see why these new signals are a priori bad. I think what matters more is the length and timing of various signal phases (yellow, countdown, pedestrians only, etc.).

  • I’m not convinced that this is a bad idea. One of the basic rules of good interface design (for software) is that if you have to make the user wait, at the very least you should provide an indication as to how long the wait will be; that’s why we have progress bars. Waiting for a light to change is extremely frustrating, and new technology that reduces this frustration might actually improve driver behavior.

  • I prefer the low-tech approach to controlling intersections.

  • Dave

    I was just in Israel and they have the system clever describes where the light changes to red and yellow before green. Driving a stick shift, this gave me time to get the car in gear before the light changed. Notably the yellow before red was much shorter so it was pretty much impossible to gun the engine to try to make the light.

  • I have seen them in southern Brazil, they actually looked just like the race image you posted. The green and red both dropped down as the time ran out. In northern Brazil, a standard clock countdown was posted above the light.

    In general, theyre a bad idea. However, for cross streets that have a very long red, they might be a good idea. Havent you ever been at a light that you thought was broken because it wouldnt change? A countdown would soothe those fears and stop people running the light because they thought it didnt work.

    As for pedestrian countdowns working the same way….I recently saw a car accelerate as soon as the pedestrian countdown hit zero, but then hit the brake suddenly and reverse because the next phase was for turns only. Dumbass.

  • Adam Wride

    The on-your-mark-get-set-go lights are also found in Argentina. =)

  • Ian Turner

    Some cities in China do in fact have a giant countdown timer for each light cycle. I think these were installed because before that, drivers would look at the other street’s signal and start moving forward once that one turned green — this behavior would cause accidents at intersections with more than two phases.

    Driving in China is extremely ruthless. Pedestrians must exercise 360-degree vision when crossing, as cars can come from any direction. The last time I was in Shenzhen, my first view of the city included watching a driver cut across three lanes of traffic while speeding and driving the wrong way on a one-way street in order to make an illegal left turn. That was pretty eye opening.

  • BC

    I’m sorry but this post is all snark and no substance. Like someone else said, technology is not in and of itself bad, its usually the implementation that matters. The point of this particular technology is probably to reduce the “lost” time that occurs at the beginning of a green phase. If this technology reduces lost time from say 4 to 2 seconds, over many cycles you’ve increased the capacity of your network significantly. This means less grumbling from the motorists. Like it or not you have to live with cars and solutions that improve the operation of the network are good as long as they don’t seriously degrade the performance or safety for other modes. This post is just a lot of huffing and puffing about something the author doesn’t really know much about. I read this blog a lot and generally think that the “factual” posts are much better than the “opinion” posts. This one is all about how someone “feels” about this technology. Not very informative.

  • Michael Steiner

    As many above mentioned Red+Yellow is common in Europe. However, it’s not to put manuals from neutral to a gear but to turn on the engine (which presumably you have turned off beforehand). In fact, in some places in Switzerland (and probably elsewhere) it is the law to turn off the engine at a red light (with exceptions for the first or first two cars, can’t remember the exact regulation)! And it works also pretty fine, just in case anybody is wondering ….

    Of course, a pretty unthinkable law here in the US where people don’t even turn off the engine when they sitting for minutes in idling parked car or even leave their running car unattended to fetch a pizza ….

  • I agree with BC. Instead of witting an entry full of snark, why not try to analyze the benefits for all users? Perhaps there is a reason that countdown timers are employed in other countries.

    For a blog that calls for open-mindedness when it comes to many counter intuitive street improvements, I’d hope you could be just as open minded about street design that is targeted at vehicles. No, car’s are not the enemy. It’s entirely possible that this could be an enhancement for everybody.

  • Brad have you ever driven a car in your life? In the city?

    Everyone can already time when the light’s about to go green; we do it by looking at the pedestrian crosswalks, and the perpendicular streetlights. If I see cross-traffic going yellow, I know that I’m going green in (one second per 10mph of speed limit on the cross street plus two seconds); when their light goes red I lift my foot off the brake; when mine goes green I press gently on the gas.

    This light is awesome and a net win for everyone. Cars aren’t the enemy. Maybe they’re your enemy. As a hopefully reasonable user of a car as well as bikes and trains, increasingly I’m wondering whether you’re /my/ enemy.

    Expand the tent, don’t shrink it. Taking a knee-jerk antiauto position will alienate potential allies. Posts like this are counterproductive to Streetsblog’s mission.

  • Mike

    Well, count me as one who is not interested in “solutions that improve the operation of the [car] network”. We’ve had that for 100 years, at the expense of other modes of transportation, and look where that got us. It’s important that we remain skeptical of any technology, especially those that purport to “improve” driving. Great piece, Streetsblog.

  • Ian: Shenzhen drivers sound just like Williamsburg bicyclists!

  • BC

    Mike, you make a good point. We’ve had 100 years of engineering directed at improving the operation of a transportation system designed for cars. Now, imagine if we had had 100 years of engineering directed at improving the operation of a multi-modal integrated transportation network. Would you still be against this technology? I hope not. Then you’re just an anti-car crank.

    Of course, the fact is that we live in a country that has done its damndest to push non-automotive transportation modes to the fringes. But that’s not a consequence of any particular technology. Its a consequence of political decisions. I’ll be more than happy to sign the petition to fix that problem.

  • great headline

  • Mike

    @BC: Not anti-car, but certainly anti-car-based society, especially in cities like New York. So, I look with disapproval at anything that makes life easier for car drivers, and any more money being spent on them than necessary. If this makes me a crank, so be it. I see really no purpose for this countdown thing, especially if it encourages drivers to view lights, intersections and other street users as obstacles rather than a shared public space where they are required to behave themselves.

    Yes, political decisions to employ certain technology are at fault for the mess we’re in today. I think we’re in agreement there. I happen to think that this countdown light is yet another technology that government should decide NOT to employ — that’s policy.

  • Mike, what about my example of intersections that have 60 second (or more) red light phases. Dont you think that a timer might prevent red light running?

    Further, we all know how big a problem texting drivers are….but I havent seen a single proposal on how to eliminate it. Its hard for a cop to ticket a driver that has their phone on their lap, it’s impossible to see. As such, if a driver pulls up to a light, sees 43 seconds, and decides to text….isnt this an improvement? If theyre going to text, might as well have them do it during a safe time.

    Countdown timers could make EVERYBODYS life easier, not just those driving.

    Also, how do you feel about pedestrian countdowns? While standard in most major cities, I know they are rare in NYC. As a pedestrian, I love them, but someone in government in NYC is skeptical.

  • Sure, this would be great if drivers tended to brake rather than accelerate when lights turn yellow. Or if pedestrians would wait for the next cycle rather than try to dash for the light. But in NYC, we all know the opposite is true. I think we can live with the lost second or two of start time. Life ain’t a drag race. This is a bad idea for NYC.

    And Brad is right. Good post.

  • Ian Turner

    Kaja, pretty much, only at 5X speeds and 15X mass.

  • Mike, in comment no. 17 you are stepping right into what I will start calling Streetsblog’s Congestion Paradox. In your words, we look with “disapproval at anything that makes life easier for automobilists,” but yet we demand that automobilists behave in the most polite, friendly, and patient manner possible.

    In its most pithy formulation: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

  • J. Mork

    Why is it that motorist countdown signals display the time remaining before the go phase while pedestrian countdown signals display the time before the stop phase?

  • Okay, I’ll bite, Jonathan. What do you have in mind that “makes life easier for automobilists” without increasing carnage, noise or pollution?

    It’s not a paradox if you just want these people to stop driving and take the subway like everyone else.

  • Cap’n, the only thing that comes to mind to make life easier for automobilists is gecko’s concept of replacing the automobile fleet with electric tricycles.

    Since you’re not Emperor Transit, your individual desires (though I agree with them) are irrelevant. I want a pony. My observation is that policies that make driving more difficult and annoying will likely encourage drivers to be less patient and more aggressive.

  • BC

    Wow. Its a little depressing how partisan everybody tends to be. Everything’s a zero sum game right? If you make an improvement for “them” (i.e. motorists) its a loss for us (peds/bikes) right? Sorry, that’s just infantile. Like I said, if you want to fix this problem, fix how funding gets allocated, get rid of the endless subsidies for driving, and get forward thinking politicians in office. But, please don’t tell me that some technology that improves traffic flow is bad because you don’t like cars. Sheesh. FWIW, I don’t own a car and I haven’t for like 10 years.

  • NattyB

    I’m confused?

    Aren’t these the same type of countdown clocks that we have in Union Square and DC?

    Or, am I reversing it in my mind.

    Like, those were pedestrian countdown clocks?

    But yah,

    Drivers in this city already jump the gun like crazy and cars notoriously run red lights like whoa. I don’t think the problem in this city is that cars are too slow off the jump. I like it the way it is as a biker, where I can keep my eyes on the cross-traffic light, so I can get ahead of the cars, and get good speed, before I have all of 2nd ave breathing down my neck.

    Drivers don’t need this. The first guys at the light can just keep their eyes on the cross-light/pedestrian light.

    This is a solution in search of a problem.

  • NattyB

    I’m kinda confused

    Aren’t these the same type of countdown clocks that we have in Union Square and DC?

    Or, am I reversing it in my mind.

    Like, those were pedestrian countdown clocks?

    But yah,

    Drivers in this city already jump the gun like crazy and cars notoriously run red lights like whoa. I don’t think the problem in this city is that cars are too slow off the jump. I like it the way it is as a biker, where I can keep my eyes on the cross-traffic light, so I can get ahead of the cars, and get good speed, before I have all of 2nd ave breathing down my neck.

    Drivers don’t need this. The first guys at the light can just keep their eyes on the cross-light/pedestrian light.

    This is a solution in search of a problem.

  • Ian

    I seem to recall a study having been done in Taiwan on the effect of red-light timers and green-light timers. One of them actually reduced the number of traffic accidents at the intersection, and the other increased them, but I can’t remember which was which. Is someone else able to dig this up?

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