January/February 1998, p.11

Why Traffic Lights Are Not a Panacea

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When a community first identifies a traffic problem, a frequently-heard mantra is, "We want a traffic signal." Case in point: on Washington St. in Greenwich Village, throngs of pedestrians cannot cross the street. Apparently the street, profiled in Gridlock Sam's book, Shortcuts, is the quickest route from Midtown to the Holland Tunnel. In response to the through-traffic, neighborhood groups spent years trying to get a traffic signal. Last December DOT engineers denied their request. Lesson: Residents should have asked for traffic calming. Traffic signals fall short for several reasons:

  • The DOT will quickly deny traffic signals if the intersection does not meet certain standards known as "warrants." Traffic-calming devices such as speed humps are not governed by the same restrictions.
  • Traffic signals do little to control speeding. They are designed to control the flow of traffic, not increase pedestrian safety. Traffic-calming devices are specifically designed to slow down cars.
  • A traffic signal will do little to stop reckless red-light running without consistent police enforcement. Traffic-calming devices are physically self-enforcing.