Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Are Traffic Signals Bad? The Bikeportland "debate"

A friend wrote in on about how traffic signals are bad.

Here's my response:

I respectfully disagree with you on the topic of traffic signals and support the dialogue on speed limits. There are 1,070 traffic signals in Portland and not all are designed for cars to "move faster". A good number of them (250) are in downtown and are used to manage traffic carefully to insure speeds are safe for all users (especially pedestrians crossing right turning traffic and people on bikes sharing the lane or in a bike lane). Our policies in downtown prioritize multimodal movement and safety and have for thirty years. We have been extending that concept to recent projects like the Burnside-Couch couplet which are set up to progress all traffic at 20 miles per hour. Granted, cars can move faster then that, but our intent is to manage the traffic so the traffic signals are a positive influence on the safety of the street. This is not a one sized fits all proposition. The adjacent buildings and activity of pedestrian and bicycle travel play a significant role. What works in downtown doesn't on 82nd Avenue.

Traffic signals aren't a panacea for safety either. In situations with two way traffic, we can't manage the speeds like we do in a grid of streets with nearby signals. There are a number of corridors where the signals are so distant that they do move cars faster than if they weren't there, but any intersection treatment would have the propensity to do that.

I can't stress enough that context is important, but there is also difficulty in changing the status quo with only a change to the traffic signals. There has to be the right context and other supportive efforts to make change happen. Just as the concepts of Missouri aren't likely to show up in Portland any time soon, the ideas of one intersection in England would have to be used with the right context and community support.

Your later comment on lower speed limits and the resulting dialogue should be considered further in a Vision Zero type effort. Reducing speed limits, combined with effective enforcement, including working with the judicial system, would only be effective with a comprehensive focus on the problem.  That's what leadership looks like.

If there are traffic signals that you think encourage speeding, ask City staff to take a look at them. If there are streets that seem to have speed limits that are set unreasonably high, call the 503-823-SAFE hotline. The City uses good feedback to make change happen, sometimes incrementally but it all adds up.

UPDATE: Jonathan was kind enough to suggest that this was how to use comments effectively by citing my response. It must have been a slow Bike News day!

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