by Barry Edelson


A Hymn to the Traffic Circle

And a lament for the traffic light

For several blissful days late last month, after a storm named Irene blew through the New York metropolitan area, the traffic lights did not work.

The absence of electricity or digital connectivity was an inconvenience for many, and a hardship for a few, but on the positive side, suburbanites were treated briefly to the kind of quiet and darkness that are experienced in modern times only in the least developed parts of the world. Only the irritating thrum of a few neighbors' portable generators punctuated the uncommon stillness. In the nighttime skies of even the most rural places in America, lights from houses, street lamps and distant villages intrude upon the pristine blackness of a summer evening. Even astronomical observatories set upon mountains once thought adequately distant from cities and towns now struggle to overcome the ubiquity of electric lights. Despite the post-Irene annoyances of spoiled food, cold water and (heavens!) no internet, we had a few brief days reminiscent of a lost era, when noise and glare and hurry were not the only measures of the day. [Those poor souls who suffered from flooding in upstate New York and Vermont are clearly exempted from these comparatively trivial considerations.]

One might have imagined that the unexpected absence of traffic signals from the landscape would result in chaos, with cars and trucks tangled at every intersection, drivers not knowing whether to yield the right of way or barrel through at great risk to themselves and others. But no such scenario ensued. For three consecutive mornings and evenings, my 16-mile commute across the county line was easier than it has ever been at any time of the day or night. Of the more than two-dozen lights along the route, only at two of the largest intersections were they working at all. Any conjecture that the roads were simply emptier because a lot of people stayed home is without basis in fact. Everyone at my place of work, and all of the neighbors and friends I had occasion to speak to at that time, went to work as usual on the Monday morning after the weekend storm, despite the fact that the power, phones and computer networks were out in most of the area. Certainly by Tuesday or Wednesday, as electricity and other services returned to normal for increasing numbers of homes and businesses, the traffic should have gotten noticeably heavier, and the accompanying problems at busy crossroads proportionately more intense. But with so many trees fallen on electrical lines along so many major and minor roads, the traffic lights did not return in full for at least five days, and there was no apparent change in the peaceful flow of vehicles.

This unexpected gift of easy travel leads to several possible conclusions. First, that people aren't nearly as self-involved as we typically believe them to be, and are as inclined to yield as to push their way in front of others. This is an exceedingly unlikely explanation, as anyone who has ever stood in line or read a newspaper could attest. A second and more likely possibility is that, despite the conventional wisdom that taking the wheel makes people feel insulated from the world and thereby arouses their most selfish tendencies, the realities of sharing the road with others forces upon them a minimal degree of enlightened self-interest. In other words, a driver may care little about the fate of the drivers around him, but he doesn't want to be injured or to have his car damaged any more than the other drivers do. Faced with the sudden freedom from constraint that a signal-less intersection presented, a self-imposed restraint necessarily took over. Much to the chagrin of many so-called Americans, liberty does not lead to unfettered freedom of action, at least not for long, because the universal human tendency is to impose discipline and organization upon mischief and disorder. Only a fool would put his foot down on the accelerator as he approached an unregulated crossing without first considering the risks involved. In such an elemental inclination to consider the harm one might do or come to, does all of civilization take root.

On a practical note, most of the traffic lights in the world would appear to be simply unnecessary. An example: There is one particularly snarly spot on my trip to work, where a two-lane street merges into another, just before it intersects with a major through-road. Naturally, there is a traffic light where these roads converge, and another one about a tenth of a mile beyond this point where the main road begins a sharp incline up a steep hill. On a normal weekday morning, a long line of traffic builds on each of these roads. Any momentum the slowly moving rush-hour caravan makes as cars manage to squeeze through the first light is invariably snuffed out by the second light. But on three consecutive mornings after the storm, when these two traffic lights were out of commission, there wasn't a single vehicle waiting to pass through these intersections from any direction. Without lights, there was no backup whatsoever. Without the artificial obstruction caused by the lights, there was ample opportunity for vehicles to make their turn into the flow of traffic, which could now continue unimpeded up the nearby hill.

So why is there a light at this juncture, or at any of a dozen others along my way that seem to serve no purpose whatsoever? The only possible answer is that most traffic lights are not installed because their necessity was determined by experienced traffic engineers. They are there because somebody in the neighborhood claimed the corner was unsafe, and got the ear of some politician, who made a call to someone he knew in local government, who dropped the "suggestion" on some dogsbody in the appropriate department, who had no incentive to explain why a light at this particular location was uncalled for because, at the end of the day, putting up traffic lights is what the department is for and justifies the employment of everyone in it. A few months and a photo-op later, everybody is happy: the locals who can now turn more easily onto a major road from their previously unnoticed side street, the politician who has curried the favor of voters with almost no effort on his part beyond smiling for the camera, and the traffic department that had an opportunity to demonstrate its relevance. All except the thousands of drivers who will be inconvenienced by the light every day for years to come, and who will have no idea how or why it got there, or who to hold accountable for their trouble.

Why not circles?

In my town, there is a single traffic circle in front of the post office. It is a rare and consequently unfamiliar configuration to most American drivers, who mostly fail to grasp the concept that the right-of-way belongs to any car already in the circle. Nonetheless, even though some drivers wait longer than they must to enter the circle, and even though it is too small for some of the trucks that pass by, it has been a resounding success. There is almost never a wait to get through the intersection, even at the busiest times of the day. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has attempted to drive in Britain or mainland Europe (or parts of New Jersey, for that matter), where the traffic circle is so common as to far outnumber traffic lights. Traffic almost never has to wait to enter a traffic circle, even in busy urban centers.

There are plans for two more circles in my town (originally scheduled to be finished in 2006, but that's another story), and it is devoutly to be wished that even more of them will find their way onto the nation's overburdened highways and byways. The traffic light is an archaic, expensive, ineffective, electricity-eating, gasoline-wasting nuisance. Never mind more billions spent on new roads: we can improve the daily misery of millions of commuters simply by switching off most of the traffic lights we already have. We shouldn't have to wait for another hurricane to get the traffic moving.

September 18, 2011


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