Going Right in America- Observations Part 7

It’s all-too-easy to get involved with niggly discussions about traffic. Everyone’s got some pet anxiety or irritation. Mine is the Webb & Taranaki intersection. It’s linked to Karo Drive, so that if you turn left off Karo Drive you can go straight up Taranaki Street. What that means in practice is often that you have cars waiting on both Taranaki and Webb Streets watching nobody drive anywhere because there’s no traffic on Karo Drive. With the combination of peak/off-peak flows, I’d off-hand suggest it’s an idea spot for a traffic circle/roundabout.

I often feel like traffic signal design in Wellington is based around that kind of over-specification of where cars will go, rather than being adaptive to existing flows. There are numerous places where there are no-right-turn arrows in places where it is quite safe to turn right 99% of the time, but the traffic planners have the 1% in mind. I often get the feeling that traffic planners don’t trust me. That’s why, for example, there’s often a full red light for a right turn when a left-turn vehicle has a green light even though the give-way rules mean that if both had greens it’s clear who has right of way (and was clear in the previous iteration of the rules.)

Like I say – it’s a bit easy to get involved in your pet problems, and everyone’s an expert.

I only bring it up because I felt quite different driving in the South West of the USA. Driving in the USA had its share of challenges, mostly relating to traffic flows and snow, but they seemed to have either a bit more confidence in their drivers, or a bit less concern for their wellbeing. We saw a fair amount of irresponsible driving, such as the long-haul trucks doing 75mph in snowy-sleety precipitation and 200m visibility, but nowhere’s perfect.

The changes to the traffic system were not large. I saw far fewer red turning arrows – there were green arrows to facilitate turning in difficult spots, with the opposite-direction traffic on a complete red; once both directions were on green though, there was no red arrow – they seemed to believe drivers were sensible enough to not try turning into the face of oncoming traffic.

But the main change was a stroke of genius: traffic turning right treats red lights as stop signs. If there’s nobody there, you can turn right. I don’t have any hard numbers on this, but it seemed to me that it must surely reduce waiting times at intersections considerably, and in a way which has few draw-backs. Since you’re not crossing any other traffic lanes, it’s very simple to ensure that you’re clear, and it’s essentially a maneouvre done at slow speeds, so it’s easy to execute.

When I think about the intersections which frustrate me in Wellington, such as the aforementioned Webb & Taranaki, it seems like the same rule (except, turning left) would be a significant help even without changing the light phases.

Jeremy Clarkson described this rule as America’s only contribution to Western civilization. He may not be completely right on that, but he’s not exactly wrong about its virtue.

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