No one loves a traffic light. We wait, staring at the red, hoping the green lasts long enough for us to get past the intersection so we can race to the next one.
But we tolerate them because we think they keep us from smashing into each other. It’s part of the deal we make for civilization.
But what if traffic lights made things worse, not better? What if they belonged on the long list of things that were supposed to be good for us – like sunshine and low-fat diets – that have turned out to be killers?
Traffic-light haters, your moment has arrived. The latest idea in urban street design does away with signals, curbs, crosswalks, bike lanes and anything else that segregates one method of transportation from another, leaving it to drivers, walkers and cyclists to negotiate their way through shared streets designed for slow but continuous flow.
Instead of becoming a Darwinian free-for-all, cities that have tried it, from Amsterdam to Pittsburgh, have found it made streets safer for pedestrians and less frustrating for drivers, while increasing the value of roadside property.
It’s the kind of thing that could work in Portland intersections like Congress Square and the ones along Franklin Street if … well, if the notion didn’t violate every way we think the world works.
People on the road are distracted sociopaths. They can’t be trusted to make left turns on the honor system or avoid running down pedestrians without being told not to do it. Without a light directing traffic, the whole thing would dissolve in chaos, wouldn’t it?
No, says Nir Buras, a D.C.-based architect and urban planning consultant who has been spending his summers in the Portland area for the past three years. He’s worked on renovations of the U.S. Capitol and Grand Central Station in New York and has seen enough to think Portland could get rid of all the traffic signals on the peninsula and continue to function while making getting around town much more pleasant.
Buras has studied classical architecture and thinks that everything worked pretty well without traffic lights until the 20th century.
“Traffic engineers designed everything for cars, but that’s the wrong way to look at traffic,” Buras said. “The right way to look at traffic is to understand that it’s all people who occupy the street, and you want to design for human nature.”
One factor of human nature is that drivers, almost without exception, don’t want to hit anything. Not pedestrians, not cyclists, not other cars.
Given that prejudice, they will be careful driving down a street where there are people and other vehicles around. They will make eye contact with other drivers and pedestrians, they will yield the right of way. Most of all, they will slow down.
Which is the key to the whole shared-streets concept. Drivers on a road designed to be driven at 20 mph or less won’t be surprised by a crossing pedestrian or when a child’s ball rolls into the street. For the drivers who are fuming about the idea of slowing down so much, Buras has some good news: That’s how fast you drive now.
The speed limit on Franklin Street is 35 mph, but the average speed for a vehicle driving from one end to the other is 14.5 mph. If everyone were rolling along at 15 mph without waiting at red lights, the cars could flow through the city and pedestrians could cross safely. It’s the line of cars waiting at the light that creates the worst problems, Buras says.
He invites shared-streets skeptics to look at two videos to see how it can work. One shows the village of Poynton, England, where a perennial traffic bottleneck was replaced with what looks like a pair of rotaries, with no red lights or signs telling drivers what to do. The result is a place with a slow but steady flow of vehicular traffic, where people can now walk to shops and cafes without taking their lives into their hands.
The other film Buras likes is much older. It was shot in 1900 in San Francisco with a camera mounted on a cable car. Cars, trollies, bicycles and horse-drawn carriages move steadily along, never having to stop. Pedestrians pick their way through the busy traffic, crossing wherever they need to. They all move so smoothly it’s like a ballet.
Human nature has not changed since then, so Buras said there is no reason people would behave differently today if they faced the same conditions.
“I don’t get the point of stopping at an intersection, waiting for a stoplight when there is no traffic coming,” he said. “We’ve gotten used to it, but we don’t need to.”
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: