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Red Light, Green Light, No Light

by on July 29, 2014 6:00 AM

When I was a kid, we sometimes played a game called "Red Light, Green Light."

Nowadays I spend enough time at pools that I see plenty of "Marco Polo" being played, and if the kids are still playing that timeless classic then I'm sure kids somewhere are playing "Red Light, Green Light."

The other day I was playing my own adult version of Red Light, Green Light at an intersection here in Happy Valley and chuckling to myself. Chuckling because there was enough traffic at the intersection that I waited through two complete red-green sequences before getting through.

Can you believe that?! Two light changes to get through an intersection! (I'm shocked, shocked to find there's traffic going on here!) Of course the humor was that it's something I regularly encountered living outside Philadelphia, in Orlando, working in New York City, or traveling in any one of the large cities I've visited – but rarely encounter here in bucolic Happy Valley. Outside of rush-minute, that is. OK, OK. Rush-half-hour.

Now, I'm as environmentally sensitive as the next person and try to be as energy-efficient as I can be. (As a "MythBusters" fan I'm still waiting for all cars to have dimpled exteriors like golf balls.) And there's one thing I know for certain about energy efficiency – an idling car at an intersection is a wildly inefficient use of energy. It's burning energy, but it's not going anywhere. So, who do we have to thank for this and how do we stop it -- I mean how do we get the cars going?

Cleveland, in addition to once again being the home of the NBA's most popular player, seems by most sources to get the prize as the first city in this country with an electric traffic signal – installed in 1914. An electric traffic signal that would, according to a publication at the time, "... revolutionize the handling of traffic in congested city streets and should be seriously considered by traffic committees for general adoption." I'm sure there's a Cleveland joke in there somewhere.

In the 100 years since that first electric traffic signal was installed, we Americans have bought into them hook, line and sinker. They're everywhere. So much so that the ubiquitous "one-red-light town" is now going – or is gone – out of style. Because once you have one traffic light, you're destined to get more. And in the few years that I've lived back in Happy Valley, we've certainly added more.

But traffic lights are wasting energy. The vehicles idling at the light are wasting gas. The lights are using electricity 24/7. The cost to install them is normally several hundred thousand dollars. And to top it all off, it's highly likely they don't even perform one of their primary functions – move traffic along.

The Federal Highway Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation electronically publishes the national code book designed to keep traffic moving. It's conveniently entitled the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or "MUTCD" for short. At 816 pages plus appendices, the latest issue – May 2012 – is a great read if you have the time or inclination. Didn't think so. Section 4B.03 of this healthy tome lists the "Advantages and Disadvantages of Traffic Control Signals" and points out the disadvantages as follows:

  • Traffic control signals are often considered a panacea for all traffic problems at intersections. This belief has led to traffic control signals being installed at many locations where they are not needed
  • Traffic control signals, even when justified by traffic and roadway conditions, can be ill-designed, ineffectively placed, improperly operated, or poorly maintained.
  • Improper or unjustified traffic control signals can result in one or more of the following disadvantages:
  • Excessive delay,
  • Excessive disobedience of the signal indications,
  • Increased use of less adequate routes as road users attempt to avoid the traffic control signals, and
  • Significant increases in the frequency of collisions (especially rear-end collisions).

If traffic control signals can negatively affect the safety and efficiency of driving, why are they installed at such an alarming frequency? The answer from the MUTCD is called a "traffic signal warrant." It looks at a number of variables: vehicular volume, pedestrian volume, vehicle speeds, crash experience, grade of the intersection , roadway network, and on and on, examines these factors (the reason we need engineers!), and determines if a specific intersection "warrants" a traffic signal.

But the MUTCD adds the following caveat: "The satisfaction of a traffic signal warrant or warrants shall not in itself require the installation of a traffic control signal." So again, why install them?

This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. The problem for many towns, cities and boroughs is that once an intersection has been studied and it "warrants" a traffic signal, it becomes a liability for the town, city, borough, etc. to NOT install a traffic signal. If someone was injured in an accident at that intersection, they could claim the governmental body was liable because they knew it warranted a traffic signal but didn't install one.

Now I know what you're thinking. He wants to get rid of all the traffic lights? He's crazy. (As Robin Williams says, "I've never been diagnosed.") Well here's a little story...

On August 24, 1992 Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida. At the time we lived in Orlando and I managed 60 mall-based electronics stores across the southeast U.S. – several in the Miami area. Three days later I made the drive to Miami to assess their status. Power was still out across all of Dade County. What I do remember vividly was the expectation that traffic would be a nightmare. Miles and miles of major six-lane roadways with no traffic lights functioning! It was going to be a zoo.

It was the quickest I've ever gotten around South Florida in my life. Of the dozens of times I've been there, never before and never since, has traffic flowed as smoothly. And this is not because there wasn't anyone on the roads – on the contrary, the roads were very busy. It was just that everyone treated every major intersection as a four-way stop, took turns, and kept going.

If you were entering a major street from a side street, you didn't bother trying to cross or turn left, you just made a right-turn to get into the flow of traffic, and then adjusted from there. (Another "MythBuster" episode would confirm this "right-hand" turning concept years later. You can actually save gas by making right turns rather than idling at lights.) If I hadn't been there and driven it I can assure you I wouldn't have believed it, but it is true and it worked.

We want to be fuel-efficient. We want to be safe. We want traffic to keep moving. But we want to cover our collective you-know-whats as well. What to do?

My suggestion to all of us is this: If we get the urge, because of fear or concern or our own personal desire to do good, to suggest to our government that a red light, or any other specific traffic solution, be implemented – stop.

Take a breath. Relax. Then emphasize to the government the particular problem and the need for improvements rather than request a specific solution. Let them do what they get paid to do and make a decision that benefits the many.

Because a moving vehicle is a much more energy-efficient vehicle than one sitting at a traffic light. And red-light, green light can stay just a child's game.


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John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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