Seattle may ditch traffic signals in order to make its streets safer. This counterintuitive move should slow traffic, and make drivers more attentive around intersections. And if you live in Seattle, you can send your suggestions for suitable intersections to the local government.
The problem with traffic signals is one of entitlement. If you see a green light, you speed on through, not even giving much thought to the fact that you’re even at a road junction. Worse, if the light changes as you approach, you’ll either jump on the gas, or jump on the brake, either of which can be dangerous for you and other road users. Traffic signals, then, make for efficient intersections, but not safe ones.
According to the Seattle DOT, the city has over 1,000 traffic signals, and it plans to replace up to ten of them of them with four-way stop signs, with more to come if the trial works out. Not only do stop signs force drivers to pay attention, and slow down, it also makes the area unattractive as a through-route, so drivers may instead opt for a bigger, light-controlled road nearby. If properly planned, this can be a powerful traffic-shaping tool.
According to StreetsBlog’s Angie Schmidt, a similar scheme in Philadelphia, where 200 signaled intersections were replaced with stop signs, crashes were reduced by almost a quarter, with nighttime collisions cut by almost half.
In Europe, and especially in the U.K., roundabouts–traffic circles, in America English–are used to keep vehicles moving when roads meet. Any number of roads can be combined by running them into a roundabout, and there is one simple rule: vehicles already on the roundabout have priority. The rest is done with design, making sure that approaching drivers have a clear view so they can join the roundabout without slowing down if it’s clear.
Roundabouts might be the best way to keep traffic moving at intersections, and they’re not even too bad for pedestrians, because traffic is usually slow, and drivers are paying attention. In one study, says Schmitt, roundabouts reduced crashes with injuries by 78%.
If you’re already getting angry that you won’t be able to drive your car at top speed through downtown city streets, then this next point might make you explode. Seattle’s plan is not even the most radical possible–nor the safest. For the safest intersections, it may be better to remove all rules and let motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians duke it out instead. In the Netherlands (of course), a new model is in use which does away with all traffic controls. Like some communist plot where everyone is equal, the idea is that if nobody is given priority, then everybody has to work together.
“The more uncomfortable the driver feels,” Montgomery, Alaska city engineer Chris Conway told Scientific American in 2009, “the more he is forced to make eye contact on the street with pedestrians, other drivers and to intuitively go slower.”
Ten years ago, the German town of Bohmte spent around $2.5 million to remove all traffic controls. It replaced them with two simple rules. Nobody can travel faster than 30kmh (19mph), the standard speed limit in German cities, and everyone has to yield to the right, whether the oncoming “vehicle” is a car, a bike, or a pedestrian. Crashes disappeared. With 13,000 vehicles passing through every day, the Bohmte was accustomed to 50 big crashes per year at the town’s main intersection alone. After removing traffic signals that number dropped to near zero.
Removing traffic control forces everyone to do more work, but the result is more safety, and–according to Bohmte’s mayor Klaus Goedejohann–more politeness. And if it decides to go ahead with its signal-purging plan, Seattle might see another unexpected bonus: it will no longer have to pay to repair or replace damaged and vandalized traffic signs. That might not sound like much, but if the little town of Bohmte is saving over $6,000 per month, then the savings for a big U.S. city could be huge.