Squadron: Red Light Cams Needed at Dangerous Intersections

squadron_red_light_camera_press_conference.jpgDan Squadron at yesterday’s press event.

Earlier this month Albany approved the expansion of New York City’s red light camera program. Media coverage tends not to play up the benefits of automated enforcement, so it was refreshing to see State Senator Dan Squadron, who represents Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, put the emphasis squarely on safety at a press event in Chinatown yesterday.

Standing near the foot of the Manhattan Bridge, where more than 40 pedestrians have been injured and two killed since 1995, Squadron brought attention to the most dangerous intersections in his district. He called for DOT to install an enforcement camera at Bowery and Canal and at these "danger spots":

  • The intersection of Essex and Delancey Streets (87 pedestrians injured and one killed from 1995 to 2005)
  • Targeted intersections on West Street between Canal Street and the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel (114 pedestrians injured and one killed)
  • Tillary Street from Adams Street to Flatbush Avenue extension in Brooklyn (81 pedestrians injured and one killed)

DOT will have to make its selections judiciously. The city is now authorized to use 150 cameras (50 more than the old limit), with more than 12,000 signalized intersections to choose from.

  • Larry Littlefield

    So the number only went up to 150 in NYC?

    I wonder how many are permitted elsewhere in the state, and what the ratio to street miles is.

  • I get the impression traffic cameras are being used differently – and more responsibly – in New York. I also believe they’re solving different problems here than they are in largely suburban America. This leads me to support traffic cams in NYC, but /not/ in the rest of the country.

    I’ve been in towns where they’ve lowered the yellow light timing after installing cameras. It’s extremely common throughout America, judging by my anecdotal experience and the news. There, these seem to be primarily a revenue measure.

    Some proponents of the cameras have even admitted that shortened yellow light timings induce folks cruising along suburban thoroughfares at 45 or 55mph to slam on the brakes, inducing rear-endings.

    Here in New York, the yellows are all of ample duration – being one second per 10mph of design speed, plus one extra for good measure in trouble spots. Our DOT doesn’t appear utterly corrupt, and our traffic police may be the best-behaved bit of the NYPD.

    And the cams here are solving different problems. In America, drivers seem to blow through reds immediately after the light’s gone red, as if the cross traffic awaiting the green is their only concern. Because that _is_ their only concern: There’s no pedestrian traffic, and anyway cross traffic light timings are predictable. You can literally run reds and get away with it.

    Here in my parts of Brooklyn, drivers roll to a stop, then roll forward into the crosswalk lookin both ways. Then they proceed to either chillax in the crosswalk, forcing pedestrians out into traffic; or they continue rolling forward, and sprint across the road when they get an opening. It’s massively dangerous, involves abrupt unexpected jolts of four-thousand-pound cars usually surrounded with swarming pedestrians (because in the crosswalk) — it’s about the most antisocial and irresponsible act I’ve ever seen with a car, because so deliberate.

    I’d love to see traffic cameras all over NYC — and a bunch of stop lights transformed into stop signs, to boot. But their applicability here shouldn’t lead us to believe they make sense in the rest of America. Traffic cams are also a favorite tool of an increasingly fascist and militarized police force.

  • Gatemouth

    I believe the fatality at Tillary and Adams was one of Squadron’s predecessors in the Senate seat, Paul Bookson

  • downtown guy

    Are you sure that fatality wasn’t Marty Connor, who lives near there? That was the last Bklyn Hgts fatality related to Squadron’s district. LOL

  • I’m waiting for a comment from Larry about how even when it seems that state legislators are doing something for the community, they’re still focused on their own self-preservation.

    Sorry, everyone, I couldn’t resist.

  • howard kaemerer

    Why don’t we just do the intelligent thing like Germany, Norway, Iceland and other more enlightened European countries do and replace every stupid bullshit, (am I allowed to say “bullshit”?) intersection with roundabouts? I am a victim of law enforcement financial rape. I got a $200-ish ticket for making a left turn, at a turn signal at 3 am in Palm Desert, in the middle of the summertime. I was careful to observe that there was no moving traffic for as far as the eye could see. As most would know, who know anything of the desert, it is pretty much deserted in the summertime, because a large % of people snow-bird out of there when it gets hot. The bastard cop pulled out from the shadows and pulled me over like I just robbed a bank. I tried to explain to the bastard cop that , “If a traffic control device is designed to control traffic, yet there is no traffic to control, then why should I have to stop sir?” He grinned and said, “Tell it to the judge.” Unfortunately, I was on a job assignment, and could not appear. I almost got my licence suspended because one of my payments got lost in the mail. I fought tooth and nail to unsuspend my licence. People in America just accept the intersection scourge as normal. Please America, wake up to the reality that intersections and the cams are evil. They are only profiting the companies that build them and the cam companies that get a percentage of the tickets that are mailed to us. Hello!!! (…as I wave my hand in front of our un-blinking, decieved, hipnotized by BS, smoke and mirrored, eyes.). hjk

  • howard kaemerer

    Can I say, “Bastard cop?”…hjk

  • Greyhoundsucksass

    Build roundabouts. No one ever dies in them unless they are having a hear attack from natural causes. Intelligently, well designed roundabouts save lives.  Intersections kill. Check out my non-profit documentary on intersections versus roundabouts. I am the host. Feel free to make comments. Thank you. Howard K.

  • Ian Turner
  • Joe R.

    @7c177865bd107a919938355fe93de93a:disqus Roundabouts are relatively new stateside, so there will be an adjustment period when the accident rate on them isn’t as low as it is elsewhere (but still lower than at traditional intersections). Once roundabouts, or miniroundabouts (where there is insufficient space for traditional roundabouts), are the norm rather than the exception, they will work out just fine.

  • Andrew

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus That’s right. Drivers will be happy to stop and wait for pedestrians to cross the street. They certainly won’t merely make a cursory glance for other vehicular traffic and spin through the roundabout as fast as possible.

    Therefore, it makes perfect sense to get rid of traffic signals, which clearly indicate to pedestrians when it’s their turn to cross.

  • Joe R.

    @Andrew_J_C:disqus And how many pedestrians get hit in the crosswalk when they have the light? That’s actually how the majority of ped-car collisions occur, so it’s obvious the present system really isn’t working out all that well (not to mention the unnecessary delay it causes everyone when you have red signals with NOTHING crossing, which is what happens much of the time).
    In case you can’t figure out why roundabouts are better, I’ll spell it out for you. They force traffic to slow to a safe speed by virtue of their geometry. You’re not having people flying at 50 mph through an intersection with a roundabout (if they try, they end up as part of the scenery). That alone makes things worlds safer for people crossing. Second, most drivers won’t hit something they can clearly see. Remember motorists MUST slow down to 15 or 20 mph (or sometimes even under 10 mph) before entering a roundabout regardless of whether there is any traffic in it. This is dictated by physics. At these lower speeds the likelihood of seeing and stopping for people crossing is far better. And did it ever occur to you that a motorist might be far more likely to actually stop for a pedestrian when they know doing so isn’t going to make them miss the next light because there isn’t a next light to miss? That’s my theory on why NYC drivers are so aggressive. With lights on every block on some streets, if you don’t try to make as many of them as possible by any means (including speeding and not yielding to pedestrians) then it takes you twice as long to get anywhere. With roundabouts the delay yielding to a pedestrian is only a few seconds, not possibly 2 minutes because you miss the next light. All I know is roundabouts seem to work everywhere they’re used, whereas the complex signal patterns used in places like NYC really don’t.

  • Andrew

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus Every driver knows what a red light means, and nearly all of them respect red lights almost all the time. When pedestrians are killed crossing the street with the light, it’s usually because many drivers who also have the light neglect to yield to pedestrians while turning – either because they don’t realize that they’re required to yield or because they don’t care.
    This isn’t the first time you’ve presented your hypothesis that drivers run down pedestrians because they’re afraid of missing the light. The only problem with that hypothesis is that it doesn’t hold up. Drivers will quite readily run down pedestrians while making turns even when they can clearly see that the light one block down is red. And if they’re willing to run down pedestrians even when they can’t possibly save any time in the process, then they’ll be even more willing to run down pedestrians when red lights are taken out of the picture.
    And drivers slow down more to make a turn than to enter a roundabout.

    Any pedestrian crossing at a roundabout would be taking his life into his own hands, relying on the good will of approaching drivers to stop to allow him to cross. At signalized intersections, the pedestrian only really has to watch out for turning traffic.

    By the way, have you informed all of the owners of corner properties that you’ll be condemning their buildings to make way for your roundabouts?

  • Joe R.

    @Andrew_J_C:disqus Please get your facts straight here. Not many pedestrians are killed by cars failing to yield when turning, even though I’ll readily admit this is a major problem in NYC. What I’m referring to are pedestrians crossing, with the walk signal, who are killed by motor vehicles lining straight through the intersection at speeds which are typically deadly to pedestrians. This means at speeds well above the speed limit, not the 5 to 15 mph speeds drivers typically turn out. The majority of pedestrian deaths occur this way. There are few deaths from turning vehicles simply because the speeds when turning aren’t high enough to statistically kill most people (although deaths do occur from turning vehicles on occasion). Point of fact, my late father hit 2 people while turning. One had an injured leg but recovered just fine. The other was in good enough shape after being hit to punch him hard enough to break his glasses (and deservedly so if you ask me).
    Second, my hypothesis goes a lot further than drivers not yielding only when they clearly see a green light they might miss if they do. Rather, if you’ve studied the psychology of road rage, you’ll realize that constant obstacles and repeated unnecessary stopping puts drivers in “war” mode. Basically, after a while they just do whatever they need to do to continue their forward progress whenever they can. I submit that it’s the repeated unnecessary stopping caused by NYC’s overuse of traffic lights AND stop signs which puts drivers here into war mode. Maybe the driver who fails to yield to a pedestrian just got stuck at 20 red lights, 19 of which had no cross traffic, in the last half hour. Maybe if those intersections had roundabouts, and this was only the first or second time he/she had to slow or stop for something, then he/she might have been more inclined to do so. This is part of my theory why drivers in Europe are better. It’s not just the better training. It’s also the fact that they actually treat drivers as people intelligent enough to make judgements at intersections, rather than relying brute force controls like traffic signals. Sure, they use traffic signals in Europe, but they use them sparingly, and only when necessary. For pete’s sake, NYC has 12,000 signalized intersections. Chicago, which is comparable in size, has less than 1/10th that. All NYC has accomplished is to teach drivers to disrespect traffic signals by grossly overusing them. The good news though is with NYC’s ongoing budget crisis sooner or later we won’t be able to afford to maintain all those pretty blinking lights. We’ll have to start using traffic signals sparingly, like they do most everywhere else.

    And BTW, you seem to act as if people couldn’t get across a street without traffic signals. Unless we’re talking about the most crowded streets at peak hours, you can usually cross by looking both ways until there is a gap in traffic, then crossing. Most people learn how to do this in grade school. That’s how people crossed before traffic signals existed. In fact, if traffic is so heavy that you really NEED a traffic signal for people to safely cross the street, then I think it should only be a temporary solution. Long term, you should work on reducing traffic volumes to the point where there are enough natural gaps in traffic for people to cross on their own within a reasonable period of time.

    Remember that drivers are human beings as well. Everyone’s patience has limits. Ask someone to stop every few minutes for good reason-no problem. Have them stop constantly for lights, stop signs, double-parked cars, jaywalkers, etc. and you create the kind of homicidal maniac drivers we have in NYC.

  • Andrew

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus Wow, you really have your facts reversed here. From the New York City Pedestrian Safety Study & Action Plan, page 25 (emphasis mine):

    Failure to yield to a pedestrian while turning is a primary 
    driver action that contributes to crashes. “Failure to yield” is defined as the failure of a driver to yield to a pedestrian that is crossing the street with the light, at a legal crosswalk, or at a marked stop sign-controlled or uncontrolled crosswalk   Nearly all failure-to-yield pedestrian crashes occur at signalized intersections. 

    In New York City, the failure of drivers to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk is a major factor in pedestrian crashes; 27% of pedestrian KSI crashes involved a pedestrian crossing with the signal and the driver’s failure to yield.  (A very small proportion of pedestrian KSI crashes involved red-light-running.) Although drivers must yield to pedestrians under state law, this violation is commonplace in New York City and may not be widely known by drivers to be the law

    Notably, failure-to-yield violations are more of a problem in New York City than nationally. Only 14% of all United States fatal pedestrian crashes in 2001 listed “failure to yield to pedestrian” as a contributing factor in the crash.

    I’m glad you can get across a busy street without the help of traffic signals. I am fairly young and in good health, and I cannot. (I can easily cross the street mid-block once there’s a gap in traffic, but those gaps are usually formed by a red light upstream!) My grandmother certainly cannot. I’d rather she not be trapped at home.

    Drivers in New York City, especially the parts of the city well served by transit, tend to be self-centered jerks. Add onto that the virtual lack of enforcement of traffic laws, except occasionally for red lights, and you have a bunch of self-centered drivers who know that they can do whatever they want. Make it easier to drive and you’ll just get more of them. The need to stop for red lights is a deterrent to driving. If you want to reduce traffic volumes, eliminating disincentives to drive won’t help.

  • Joe R.

    @Andrew_J_C:disqus I’m not referring solely to crashes here, some of which result in minor or no injury, but to serious pedestrian injuries and fatalities. The bulk of those are NOT because of failure to yield. They just can’t be because the impact speeds are too low.

    Second, don’t you find it interesting that most car-ped crashes occur at signalized intersections, rather than at roundabouts, or at totally uncontrolled intersections? If roundabouts were so unsafe for pedestrians then that would be where the majority of car-ped crashes occur but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I couldn’t even find the word roundabout in that entire document. All data I’ve seen tells me signalized intersections fare very poorly in the pedestrian safety department. Your data just seems to confirm that. Here’s more:



    Third, while I agree wholeheartedly with the concept of deterring unnecessary driving, particularly in transit-rich areas, red lights are not the way way to go about it. They greatly increase pollution by forcing cars to make (often) unnecessary stops. More importantly, have a much more negative effect on cyclists than they do on cars (hence the reason red lights are almost universally ignored by cyclists). If anything, you want to take measures which discourage driving but at the same time don’t discourage something which can be a great alternative to driving. We could try a congestion tax, reducing parking, or even outright banning of passenger cars from certain parts of the city. My reasoning here is that some vehicles are still necessary for the city to function. Those vehicles should be able to make their rounds as efficiently and safely as possible. Get rid of unnecessary passenger car traffic, and there will be plenty of long gaps where even the elderly can safely cross streets (in the rare places where that isn’t the case, you can always continue to use traffic signals).

    Fourth, your views seem to be largely shaped by what goes on in Manhattan. I can tell you on most streets in the outer boroughs, you can easily find long enough gaps in which to cross, even on arterials (except maybe during peak hours). Even in Manhattan that’s often the case once you’re past business hours. My point is even taking a devil’s advocate position here, assuming you’re 100% correct that traffic signals are safer for crossing pedestrians on busy roads, much of the time the roads just aren’t busy enough to warrant them. Why not just turn the signals off during less busy times, or have flashing red on the side streets, green on the main arteries? And the rest of the time, why not have vehicle and pedestrian sensors so lights only go red if something is actually crossing? Why should traffic controls citiwide be dictated by what happens during peak hours in Manhattan?

    It might interest you to compare the number of signalized intersections in NYC to elsewhere: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=1484096

    I was actually shocked at how grossly excessive the number of signalized intersections here is compared to anywhere else. In many cities this size overseas you would have at best a few hundred signalized intersections, not well over 12,000. This is becoming an even bigger problem in the outer boroughs than in Manhattan, especially given the fact that the vast majority of these new traffic signals were installed either at the behest of ill-informed community boards, or due to political cronyism (at least one of the manufacturers of LED traffic signals has strong political connections here). Some roads where I live (Eastern Queens) have a dozen traffic signals on stretches where there were one or two when we first moved here. Neither the traffic nor the population here has significantly increased during that time to warrant this.

    Almost forgot to address your earlier comment about condemning buildings to make way for roundabouts. That’s not needed because mini-roundabouts will fit just fine within existing intersections of narrow (i.e. 30′ streets). A convention roundabout can easily fit into most arterial intersections. Roundabouts are the best solution for the outer boroughs. They’re even safer for pedestrians despite your assertion otherwise:


    For Manhattan my suggestion would be to just ban passenger cars, at least during business hours, and/or restrict delivery trucks to late nights. Keep the lights at the busiest midtown intersections. Get rid of them everywhere else.

  • Anonymous

    Come on, Joe R., don’t you think the reason there are no fatal crashes at roundabouts in NYC is because there are practically no roundabouts in NYC? I say that despite agreeing that roundabouts have been successful and safe in other countries.

    The fact that the word roundabout doesn’t appear in the document doesn’t surprise me either, as that word is almost unknown in the American lexicon. Sad personal anecdote: some years ago I was involved in a minor crash at one of the few roundabouts in the Boston area. Despite my greatest efforts to describe the scene of the crash to the insurance representative over the phone, I failed. I tried every conceivable near-synonym, such as traffic circle, rotary, “round thingy where cars go around”, etc. Based on the accent, I think the woman on the phone was from the South. I guess roundabouts are even less common there!

    You also mentioned the relative lack of crashes at uncontrolled intersections, which are more common than roundabouts. But you may be confusing cause and effect there: are they safe because they are uncontrolled, or are they uncontrolled because they are safe?

  • Joe R.

    @qrt145:disqus There’s two roundabouts not far from where I live-on 188th Street and 64th Avenue and 188th Street and 69th Avenue. I can’t believe those are the only two in the city. As for uncontrolled intersections, one of the links I gave show they are marginally safer than signalized intersections. I can’t say whether they are safe because they are uncontrolled, or vice versa. Here’s a little food for thought though-ever notice when there’s a blackout and the traffic signals go out that traffic flows better, and accident rates decline? There are statistics confirming this but I’m too tired right now to look for them. The reason I think might be the reason why I think uncontrolled intersections are inherently safer-nobody has right-of-way, so you must always assume something will be crossing at any time, and operate accordingly. For cars that means keeping to 20 mph or less at intersections, depending upon lines of site. Same for bikes, except practically speaking since most cyclists cruise at 20 mph or less, then they can safely proceed through uncontrolled intersections at full speed (unless there are poor lines of sight). And that brings me to another point-at signalized intersections we often allow zero line of sight simply because we’re depending upon the signal to prevent conflicts. In practice this doesn’t work out. If intersections were uncontrolled, good lines of sight would be required. That would most likely mean curb extensions at all corners. This could only be a good thing for pedestrians in that it greatly shortens crossing distances.

  • Andrew

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus The document defines KSI as “killed or severely injured” – exactly the sort of crash you and I are both interested in. I’ll re-quote from the same document: “In New York City, the failure of drivers to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk is a major factor in pedestrian crashes; 27% of pedestrian KSI crashes involved a pedestrian crossing with the signal and the driver’s failure to yield.  (A very small proportion of pedestrian KSI crashes involved red-light-running.)” Your assumptions are incorrect. Please drop them.

    To my knowledge, New York City has no roundabouts. The two examples you give are not roundabouts; most roundabount proponents are quick to distinguish the modern roundabout from older traffic circles, so I’m a bit surprised that you don’t realize that they’re not the same thing. The document doesn’t cite roundabout statistics for the very simple reason that there are no roundabout statistics to be cited!

    From what I’ve seen, there has been very little research to date regarding pedestrian delay or safety at roundabouts. Many intersections in New York City have hundreds of pedestrian crossings per hour at each leg and hundreds of vehicles per hour on each street. Have roundabouts been used, anywhere, with such heavy pedestrian volumes? (Pedestrian facilities at the typical roundabout are designed to accommodate an occasional pedestrian, not large pedestrian volumes.)

    The Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices lists eight warrants for traffic signals: http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/htm/2003r1/part4/part4c.htm

    All are of interest, but I direct your attention specifically to Warrant 4.

    I’m not restricting my attention to Manhattan. Many parts of the other boroughs have heavy pedestrian volumes as well. You can do whatever you want in suburban Queens, but in the urban parts of the city, pedestrians need to be able to cross the street.

    Your proposal to ban cars in Manhattan will (fortunately) go nowhere. There are actual people who live in Manhattan, and they sometimes have perfectly legitimate uses for cars. I have no objection to charging them for vehicular access to the streets, but denying that access is a nonstarter.

    Mini-roundabouts are usually painted dots in the center of the intersection. They will be universally ignored in New York.

    Blackouts are unusual events, and drivers respond accordingly. If the lights are out every day, it’s not an unusual event anymore.

    The safety problem with traffic signals has nothing to do with how drivers respond to red lights (they stop) and has everything to do with how drivers respond to green lights (they go, even when a turn puts them in conflict with a pedestrian who has legal precedence). A little bit of enforcement could go a long way here. It works well in other countries.

  • Joe R.

    @Andrew_J_C:disqus You’re conveniently ignoring this paragraph on page 22:

    “Nearly half (47%) of pedestrian fatalities and severe injuries occurred at signalized intersections; surprisingly, most (57%) of these crashes occurred while the pedestrian was crossing with the signal. This suggests that both drivers’ failure to yield to pedestrians 
    in the crosswalk as well as pedestrians’ failure to follow traffic signals are both significant factors leading to KSI crashes at intersections.”

    The last sentence is what interests me the most. Traffic signals can only work in theory if all users obey them. For starters, drivers may usually obey a steady red light, but many speed to make a light which just changed from yellow to red. Speeding on city streets is dangerous regardless of the reason. Anything which causes drivers to speed should be looked at, including traffic signals. Next and most importantly, traffic signals are pretty much universally ignored by pedestrians in NYC. People cross when the get to the corner as soon as a gap in traffic allows. About the only time I ever see people wait for walk signals is when traffic is so heavy they can’t physically cross on red (even then some of them still try). And cyclists pretty much do the same thing. When you have 2 out of 3 groups ignoring traffic signals, and the third group bending the law, the system breaks down. And the more traffic signals are used, the more they will be taken casually by all users. This doesn’t just apply to traffic signals, but to ANY traffic control which requires voluntary compliance. The only traffic controls which work well 100% of the time are those which force certain behavior by virtue of geometry. Roundabouts, speed bumps, chicanes all force slower speeds even in the absence of enforcement.

    Yes, I fully realize those two examples I gave aren’t true roundabouts. Traffic from the through street (188th Street) enters the roundabout without facing a yield sign. Still, the geometry does at least force a reduction in speed to about 20 mph at that intersection, which can only be a good thing. And it also avoids the left turn, which is the single biggest cause of ped-car crashes. As for miniroundabouts, if you put a physical barrier instead of paint, they would do the same. I’m not saying put roundabout or miniroundabouts everywhere. Rather, just use them in places where we’re currently misusing stop signs or traffic signals to calm traffic. Every traffic manual I’ve read says that stop signs or traffic signals should never, ever be used solely as traffic calming devices.

    If you watched any of the Tour de France, you’ll see roundabouts used even in decent-sized cities. I believe in severe cases pedestrian tunnels might be used at the busier roundabouts but don’t quote me on that. In NYC in much of Manhattan the pedestrian often has a similar option-namely using subway stations as defacto grade-separated crossings. I do this all the time at very wide, busy arterials such as Queens Boulevard, and sometimes when crossing Manhattan avenues. If we provided ramps to the mezzanine level at busier subway stations, then even handicapped pedestrians could use them to cross busy avenues. Crossing avenues in Manhattan is fairly rare anyway in a typical pedestrian journey. I find I’ll cross ten or twenty cross streets (which are easy to cross even if traffic signals didn’t exist on account of fairly low speeds and volumes relative to the avenues) for every avenue I need to cross.

    One thing to note here on the subject of roundabouts in cities is that in many other places they simply ban motor vehicles from the places which are densest in pedestrian traffic. This neatly avoids the need to accommodate large volumes of crossing pedestrians at roundabouts as they roundabouts and roads are generally in parts of town without large pedestrian volumes. Restricting vehicular access doesn’t unduly inconvenience those who drive either. They might simply need to park and then walk a few extra blocks. Unless a person is severely handicapped, there is simply no need for the door-to-door car access we in the US take for granted. 

    The big problem with NYC’s grid is the frequency of cross streets. Whether or not banning cars would go anywhere (I would justify it purely on terrorism grounds-namely to keep potential car bombs out of crowded areas), you don’t need vehicular access on every block. The grid was set up when vehicle speeds were closer to 5 mph, so one city block was covered in roughly 35 or 40 seconds. Moreover, these vehicles used animal power which had physical limits. With motorized vehicles traveling 30+ mph, a grid which has a cross street roughly every ten blocks would be equivalent. The cross streets in between would still of course have pedestrian and bicycle access so walking distances would be unchanged from now. With 1/10 the number of intersections (and 1/10th the number of traffic signals), the behavior of drivers would be much more civil and predictable.

    Interesting manual. Look at this sentence: “A traffic control signal should not be installed if it will seriously disrupt progressive traffic flow.” Sad to say, but this prime tenet has been violated on just about every new traffic signal I’ve seen installed locally and in most of the outer boroughs. There are some signals at crossings to pedestrian bridges over the LIE which routinely back up traffic. This is despite the fact that I rarely see anyone actually using these crossings. A simple push-to-cross or pedestrian detector would fix the problem but NYC seem to be averse to common-sense solutions like this. Or better yet, get rid of the light because the practically nonexistent pedestrian volumes just don’t warrant it. I can also find loads of conventional intersections in much of Queens where the vehicle and/or pedestrian volumes don’t meet the minimal criteria in that manual. Many were installed at the behest of community boards solely as “traffic-calming devices”. This is a blatant misuse. If I had the time, I’d ask to see the warrants at a couple of hundred of these questionable intersections, and request that the signals be removed if they fail to meet minimal criteria, or if they disrupt progressive traffic flow.

    Another major problem is that there seems to be no ongoing program to remove unnecessary traffic signals. Perhaps a traffic signal was warranted at a given location 30 years ago but maybe changes in traffic, or even just new signals installed elsewhere, mean this old signal no longer meets basic criteria. Or put another way, the current system results in traffic signal bloat. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen a traffic signal removed from any intersection in NYC. Once installed, they seem to stay forever even if they no longer serve any valid purpose. You should seriously ask yourself why this city has ten to a hundred times the number of signalized intersections compared to other cities of comparable size and population. It’s one thing to have a traffic signal at really busy intersections in the Manhattan CBD (and I fully support that) but quite another to have minor arterials in the outer boroughs with 8, 10, or more signals per mile. It gets even worse when you consider that the signals on the Manhattan Avenues are actually coordinated fairly we so that traffic moves many blocks most times once you get green, whereas the outer borough signals have virtually no coordination whatsoever. 

    Finally, ask yourself exactly why NYC drivers are so aggressive the second they get a green light? Might it have to do with the fact that they need to stop so many times, they wish to take full advantage of the rare times they can actually move? I noticed this even when I’m cycling. In less dense areas I don’t mind an occasional reason to slow down or even stop since I’m moving most of the time. Put me in a situation where I’m constantly stopping and I tend to “cut corners” when it comes to pedestrians. I don’t run them over, but I’ll squeeze in the smallest opening as soon as possible. Enforcement won’t work here either because even best case 999 times out of 1000 a motorist will still be able to not yield to pedestrians with impunity. The system is broke from the ground up. People from others who see NYC streets say they virtually encourage dangerous, illegal behavior by all groups. From where I stand much of the reason for this is due to the attempt to accommodate large volumes of both pedestrians and motor vehicles on the same street. There has never been any effective way to do this and there never will be. You’ll have more luck drilling a hole in water. The smarter way is to either restrict motor vehicles from pedestrian-heavy areas, or grade-separate as they often do in large Asian cities.

  • Joe R.

    “From what I’ve seen, there has been very little research to date regarding pedestrian delay or safety at roundabouts. Many intersections in New York City have hundreds of pedestrian crossings per hour at each leg and hundreds of vehicles per hour on each street. Have roundabouts been used, anywhere, with such heavy pedestrian volumes?”

    Andrew, just in case you didn’t read all of my last lengthy post, I’m posting to specifically address this topic which I slightly addressed towards the end. Bottom line-there doesn’t exist *any* way to accommodate the volumes of pedestrians and vehicles you mention here without unduly impacting the flow of both no matter how an intersection is set up. If you’ve ever bothered to notice, if you’re walking along the avenues in Manhattan and cross a cross street on green, generally by the time you hit the next block the light will go red just before you get there, and you’ll need to wait nearly a full red light cycle at every single block (assuming you obey the signals, which most pedestrians don’t). This effectively doubles the time needed to walk a given distance. And of course, the lights usually slow motor traffic to an average speed under 10 mph despite 30+ mph cruising speeds. That’s a factor a 3. I find signals in NYC will slow bikes by a factor of 3 to 5 if obeyed. They slow pedestrian traffic by at least a factor of 2. Everyone loses here.

    If you try to optimize for one group, then the other groups will suffer even more. Bicycles encounter greater delays from lights than cars because lights are optimized for car speeds. If you try to prevent undue delays to motor traffic then pedestrians may never be able to get across busy streets. What it comes down to is I’m thoroughly convinced there isn’t and can never be any reasonable way to deal with heavy volumes of motor and pedestrian traffic because of their disparate needs, and we shouldn’t try. Best case you’ll end up highly suboptimal operation. Worst case, you’ll have tons of conflicts AND highly suboptimal operation. Optimize for one (and restrict or ban the other), or bring the volumes down to manageable levels. A traffic signal is almost always a symptom of a failure to solve a larger underlying problem. In the specific case you’re talking about, there is simply no good reason for the volume of motor vehicles we have. 99% of these people choose to drive, as opposed to have to drive. They could easily be incented to use other options. It makes even less sense that people drive in Manhattan when you consider that the average speeds achieved are well below bicycle speeds, often even below walking speeds. In short, it’s illogical behavior to drive when it doesn’t save time or money over alternatives. If we can’t pass a congestion tax, then I feel simply banning most parking will greatly help reduce traffic volumes.

  • Joe R.

    One important thing just occurred to me regarding enforcement. It’s not so much lack of enforcement of traffic laws, but rather lack of consequences when a motorist hits a pedestrian, which I see as the primary problem. Fix that and I think you’re 95% of the way towards solving the problem. Even in the complete absence of traffic controls or enforcement of traffic laws, motorists will behave around vulnerable users if there is a certainly of serious fines, jail time, or permanent loss of driving privileges if they hit someone. Right now sadly at best most just face the prospect of points on their license so long as they’re sober and remain at the scene.

  • Ian Turner

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus : Sadly not true. Motorists have an inflated sense of their own driving skill, so that even in the face of severe penalties, any individual driver will tell themselves that they are the one who can speed without hitting someone, talk on the phone without being distracted, or squeeze in between those other two cars without causing a crash. The times recently reported that 98% of drivers describe themselves as “good”. That’s why it’s not enough to punish outcomes; you have to control behavior as well.

    Note, by the way, that I’m not arguing against severe penalties for drivers who display a disregard for human life, but rather that such a puntative approach is insufficient.

  • Joe R.

    @7c177865bd107a919938355fe93de93a:disqus  And the best way to control behavoir remains using methods which don’t depend upon constant enforcement. In addition, we could also start making getting and keeping a driver’s license harder. This would have two highly desireable outcomes. One, drivers would be much more likely to take the task of driving seriously if they knew a major screw-up could result in losing driving privileges permanently. Two, a lot fewer people would be able to obtain a driver’s license in the first place. That in turn means much lower traffic volumes across the board. One thing I’ve always found interesting was until after WWII there were a very small number of motor vehicles compared to today. The city’s population was more or less the same as now,and yet it functioned just fine with far fewer motor vehicles. We could easily return to this state by enacting real barriers to owning and operating motor vehicles. The biggest problem here isn’t the fact that we have cars on the streets, but that we have way too many for the space.


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