You can’t always get what you want

Trafficlights

If you want to see some really unhappy people, check out Rad Sallee’s latest column in the Chronicle. In it, readers complain about the recent re-timing of Downtown traffic lights. As Rad notes:

Reader response is running about 4-to-1 against the new downtown stoplight timing. Even granting that people are more likely to speak up when they’re steamed than when they’re mildly pleased, that’s a big margin.

Most of the unhappy readers, it seems, just want the signals put back the way they were. But here’s the catch: back then, people weren’t happy either. Here’s Lisa Falkenberg, writing in the Chronicle earlier this year:

The lights downtown don’t behave like regular traffic signals. Instead of progressively changing colors, they act more like a bunch of Texas politicians: If one turns red, they all do.

I wondered how they got that way. Perhaps the person who programmed them took the term “synchronization” a little too literally. It’s supposed to mean that the lights work together, changing colors progressively like falling dominoes, so that, ideally, a driver who minds the speed limit could catch every green and never have to stop.

Could it be that the city is being incompetent in two completely different ways? Or is it simply that this problem is harder than people suspect?

I drive Downtown often, and I can see what people are upset about. One problem is east-west streets: creating “green waves” on the north-south streets means that the cross streets experience almost random light cycles: very rarely doers a northbound “wave” on, say, Travis coincide with a southbound wave on Milam, so if a cross street gets a green light at one of those streets it will get a red light on the other. The second problem is that drivers don’t react quickly enough: when the “wave” hits an intersection there are already cars waiting at that light because they just turned onto that street. When the cars following the wave approach the intersection, they have to slow down or stop to let those standing cars get moving. The “wave” builds up a moving traffic jamb in front of it, and after a fee blocks cars that had been hitting green lights start hitting reds, having fallen too far behind to stay with the “wave.” Both of these problems are inherent to this scheme.

The old scheme, where all the lights turned red or green simultaneously, had neither of those issues. But it had its own problems: it meant that crossing Downtown required stopping 2 or 3 times, and it tempted drivers to run a red light to make it just one more block. And, of course, neither scheme works very well for pedestrians or bicyclists.

In other words, we have a choice of two imperfect solutions. Neither one will work well for everyone. In the end, the choice is who to annoy and how. Unfortunately, that’s a common problem in transportation. In fact, it’s a common problem in life. But it’s hard when you’re headed home and stuck at another red light to have that kind of perspective. So I suppose the positive note here is that the Chronicle performs a valuable service by giving people someplace to vent. Of course, you can do that in our forums, too.

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