Day Without Traffic Lights
I drove up with my family to Saratoga Springs this weekend
for the few hours of the Dance Flurry that was allowed to
go on in the midst of the great windblown power outage.
As we pulled off the Northway onto Route 9, the first sign
we got of the absence of electricity was a dead traffic light.
As an SUV blew past us through the intersection at highway
speed, I winced. Clearly we were entering a great no man’s
land of roadways without the protective control of traffic-signal
But as the road narrowed from that one wide highway-like point,
every other driver I saw was doing what we were doing—driving
much more slowly, paying attention, stopping to let people
turn onto the road from the side streets, stopping to allow
pedestrians to cross. I have never seen Americans so consistently
get concepts like alternative merge and four-way stop correct
Now granted, with practically every business along the strip
closed for lack of power, the traffic was lighter than usual.
Few people were late for work at 11 AM on a Saturday. And
there is that documented effect where people suddenly get
nicer and more altruistic for a while after some kind of disaster.
But as we rolled smoothly down 9, our occasional pauses for
civility made up for by not having to wait through red lights
with no one coming, I was reminded that there are a number
of traffic engineers out there who would say there was something
else going on here.
These traffic engineers think that signals and signs usually
indicate a badly designed road. Wide, straight roads with
helpful directive signs and speed limits all give drivers
the idea that they are paramount, they have the right of way,
and as long as they follow the rules to the letter, someone
else has taken care of the thinking about safety. “A wide
road with a lot of signs is telling a story,” Dutch traffic
engineer Hans Monderman told Wired in its December
2004 article “Roads Gone Wild.” “It’s saying, go ahead, don’t
worry, go as fast as you want, there’s no need to pay attention
to your surroundings. And that’s a very dangerous message.”
The movement to actually design roads and intersections to
engender better driver behavior started, not surprisingly,
in Europe. Roundabouts in place of traffic lights are a frequent
ingredient. So are such counterintuitive moves as removing
the center lane from secondary roads. Study after study shows
that approaches like these dramatically reduce the number
New York’s Department of Transportation has become one of
many states to start to follow Europe’s lead, encouraging
roundabouts instead of traffic lights around the state. Several
are being built in Malta, and others are proposed around the
People are always a little hesitant about roundabouts in this
country, often because of their experiences with traffic circles,
which are an all together different beast. Roundabouts are
much smaller. They tend not to be multi-laned or rife with
confusing signage. They do have crosswalks. People go slowly
but steadily through them, figuring out the rhythm of rights
of way much like those driving in Saratoga Springs did on
As a frequent pedestrian, I say the more the better. I’ll
sacrifice my supposedly certain green light happily. See,
every region has its own brand of bad drivers. I have quite
enjoyed the not-so-insane highway speeds and lower frequency
of honking in the Capital Region as compared to my previous
homes of New Jersey and New York City.
But I have not yet managed to calibrate my brain to the extent
to which Capital Region drivers seem to think that having
seen the light be green from two blocks away is sufficient
reason to drive through it.
Now, I am no angel. I have sometimes misjudged and tried to
slip through a yellow light that turns red above me. It happens
to the most sanctimonious of us. And so I try to be forgiving.
Morning after morning I stand at corners and think, “OK, the
light just turned red, so that guy’s going to try to slip
through and possibly the woman behind him too if she’s late
And morning after morning, two or three or four cars after
that woman will sail through the intersection as well.
I like to think of myself as adaptable, but I can’t get this
one through my skull. I’ve thought of putting out a call to
clever entrepreneurs to invent a slingshot that can successfully
launch and stick something to the side of a moving vehicle
that reads “Heard of a red light, asshole?”
When the planner in my head is allowed to speak amid the snarkiness,
however, she says it’s probably not that these drivers are
being pedestrian-hating assholes (OK, not only that).
It’s also that they are following the clues of the roads and
operating as humans are wont to operate when they’ve been
told all they have to worry about is following the rules (i.e.
not get caught breaking the rules).
Those rules aren’t working. Red-light- running accidents are
among the most likely to cause injury or be fatal. And it’s
generally the young cities, like Phoenix, Ariz., where all
the annoying aggravations of old, narrow, twisty streets and
confusing intersections have been avoided that have the highest
number of red-light- running deaths.
In a seemingly parallel universe, Monderman, the Dutch engineer,
has a party trick: He walks backward without looking into
the middle of a busy downtown intersection he designed, to
show how everyone is paying enough attention to easily avoid
So perhaps we should be thankful for some of our antiquated
infrastructure, and the occasional power outage. Certainly
Saratoga’s intersections would need a redesign to actually
function without traffic lights on a regular basis. But it
seems that when put to the test, the region’s drivers are
no different from drivers anywhere: They have what it would
take to handle a safer road system that expected more of them.
Too bad in the meantime I’ll still need my slingshot.