Washington, DC's Hot Button Issue: Traffic Lights
Bill Adler | May 10, 2007 at 07:14 amby
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And so it is with the real hot button issue in Washington, DC: traffic lights. You'd think that everyone would want traffic lights where there's a traffic problem, such as frequent crashes, speeding, and pedestrian deaths. But that's not so. The way that some people react to the idea of traffic lights, you'd think that the lights emitted harmful radiation. The opposition to a traffic light at a particular intersection in Washington, DC can be so large and loud that a light never gets installed.
One intersection I'm personally familiar with is at Newark and 34th Streets, NW, in the heart of the historic Cleveland Park neighborhood. This particular intersection (as well as the one a block away at Ordway and 34th Streets, NW) sees a lot of accidents -- at least one a month. Injuries are common there, too. This intersection has so many accidents because the north-south road, 34th Street (which also bears the name Reno Road a little further north and the nickname "Reno Speedway") has no stop signs and few traffic lights. As a result, traffic whizzes along 34th Street at a speed much greater than the posted 25 MPH. At Newark there's a stop sign for traffic going east and west. But drivers don't always come to a complete stop at stop signs, and if there happens to be a car going north or south on 34th at the moment that a car dashes past the stop sign: crash.
Because drivers tend to obey traffic lights more than they do stop signs, and because traffic lights can be timed so that perpendicular traffic stops well before the stop light changes green, traffic lights can prevent a lot of crashes that stop signs are powerless to thwart. So what's the argument against them? There are three. First, traffic engineers say that traffic lights slow traffic and that's bad for the flow. Second, traffic lights are expensive, costing between $150,000 and $500,000 per intersection. The third argument against traffic light is that they divert the natural course of the traffic flow: People opposed to the Newark and 34th Street light say that because it would make it easier and safer for cars to cross 34th Street, there will be more traffic on Newark, turning it into a major east-west road.
This intersection isn't the only controversial one in the District of Columbia. A May 2, 2007 front page story in a local Washington, DC newspaper, The Northwest Current, read "City Does U-turn on River Road signal." The three-way intersection of River Road, 45th Street and Fessenden Street, NW has been so plagued by crashes that the city installed barriers preventing traffic from turning off River Road into the side streets. These barriers were not only ugly, but they literally divided the neighborhood. A traffic light was thought to be a workable solution, and most neighbors welcomed it. But then the District of Columbia Department of Transportation suddenly decided to nix the light in favor of "traffic calming" solutions, including improving visibility by removing shrubbery, re-striping the streets, and installing signs prohibiting certain turns during rush hour. Upset and angry are the words that characterize the neighbors' reaction to this reversal.
On Porter Street, NW, between 34th Street and Connecticut Avenue, an experimental traffic light has its supporters and detractors. This light only turns red only when the accompanying radar detector scans a car going at a speed greater than the posted 25 MPH.
Meanwhile, to the north, the traffic light at Connecticut Avenue and Morrison Street, NW is an unrelenting source of animosity among neighbors. Some background about the origin of this light is in order, first. There's a stretch of Connecticut Avenue, NW, one of Washington, DC's busiest streets, where there are no traffic lights for several long blocks. That means that there's no way for pedestrians to cross the street without having to walk blocks out of their way. Opponents of a traffic light came up with a brilliant idea (they thought): Make orange flags available so that pedestrians could have a way of making themselves visible to traffic and to tell traffic to stop. The flags never worked and pedestrians got hit.
So why did neighbors oppose a traffic light on a busy street? Nobody disagreed with the fact that crossing Connecticut Avenue without a light is dangerous. What people didn't like was the possibility that some drivers, annoyed at having to stop at another traffic light, might divert to neighborhood side streets. A kind of traffic-NIMBYism. Writing on a neighborhood listserv, one Washington, DC resident had this to say about the newly installed traffic light on Connecticut Avenue and Morrison Street, NW: "If going the speed limit on Connecticut Avenue means stopping for 60 seconds every block, I'll avoid the Avenue in favor of the side streets. If everyone does that, we'll have a huge problem."
In Washington, DC, unfortunately, stop signs appear to be mere suggestions. One person who posted on a city email list put it this way: "A visitor from out-of-town asked me about a local traffic law of which he wasn't certain. I had to warn him that traffic-law obedience here, unlike in Chicago, is purely voluntary and had to explain...a D.C. stop sign. You stop at a D.C. stop sign when you think that the vehicle crossing your route will run its stop sign."
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