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Would Roads Be Safer and Greener Without Red Lights?

Half of Portland cyclists run red lights. And maybe they've got the right idea.

I run red lights. Not as a driver, but all the time on my bike. As a pedestrian, I’m an even worse offender, though crossing against the light on foot is less of a run and more of a scamper. Running a red light in a car feels dangerous and transgressive. On a bike, it feels practical, and on foot, it seems like a right. As a red-light runner, I’m in good company: Portland State University students reported recently that at busy intersections near their campus, more than half of the cyclists they observed ran through red lights. Only 7 percent of the cars the students observed were so brazen.

Data like this can be used to scold cyclists, but it’s also a reason to rethink red lights. If half of cyclists, a growing group of road users, aren’t following the rules of red lights, maybe it’s because the lights aren’t serving their needs.

There is an alternative to this system—eliminate traffic lights altogether: an idea sometimes called “naked streets” or “shared space.” In their most extreme versions, naked streets have no traffic lights, surface markings, or sidewalks. But some cities, including London, have been experimenting with taking out traffic lights, while leaving the rest of the road system intact. And it turns out that these streets aren’t just safer for cyclists and most pedestrians, they also improve roads for drivers and lessen the impact on the environment.

Driving is nearly synonymous with freedom in America, but complicated systems of traffic lights and yield signs and left-turn lanes turn drivers into automatons, who are not responsible for making decisions but for following instructions: Stop at the stop sign. Turn at the turn signal. Slow down. Speed up. Even running a red light hardly counts as a daring act of free will: Researchers at MIT have developed an algorithm that can predict whether a driver will zoom through an intersection.

When signals are present, drivers respond to them mindlessly. Hans Monderman, the Dutch engineer who originated the idea of shared space, went so far as to say that red lights and speed limits take away "our capacity for socially responsible behavior" on the road. He also put that same idea less delicately: "When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots."

For example, drivers might race up to red lights, stopping only when the light orders them to stop. It’s inefficient, and it wastes gas. One of the best tips for drivers looking to improve their fuel efficiency is “drive like you ride a bike.” “While on a bike you have a natural tendency to conserve your energy and coast to red lights... The key idea is to get in the habit of looking far ahead and anticipate when you might need to slow down,” advises. In other words, don’t just do what the traffic lights say. Think about what you’re doing.

As a cyclist, I run red lights because I’m already thinking about the best way to navigate a road that’s not designed just for me. Sometimes that means ignoring the light. Lightless streets require drivers to think, too: to save gas instead of racing up to red lights, to drive actively instead of passively. That generally means driving more slowly. Towns that have created naked streets, though, have found that even as drivers are taking great care making their way through the streets, traffic becomes more efficient. That alone is a reason to think about getting rid of red lights.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user mmarcotte51

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