Sunday, November 15, 2009

Run a red light, buy a sidewalk

Yesterday, the Seattle Times reported that Seattle Councilman Nick Licata is suggesting that the city increase its use of red light running cameras and mobile speed cameras to fill a $4.5 million deficit in the city’s budget. Part of this deficit was caused by the repeal of the $25 head tax for employers for each employee which commuted by a single-occupant vehicle. The head tax revenue was primarily devoted to pedestrian and bicycle improvements.

I am a fan of the red light running cameras since studies have shown that the numbers of collisions caused by red light running, like the more severe “T-bone” collisions, are reduced. These cameras prove to be a vital tool for the enforcement component of what traffic engineers call the three E’s (Engineering, Enforcement, and Education). With police department budgets being cut, these cameras help jurisdictions due more with less money.

One of the main criticisms of these cameras is that they are used for revenue enhancement for the jurisdiction. Engineers and jurisdictions have tried to combat this criticism ever since the installation of first cameras. Now, we have a city councilman blatantly saying that it is his intent to use them in this way.

I believe that using cameras for revenue enhancement is wrong for a number of reasons. First, the government should not rely on revenue generated from its citizens violating the law. Red lights should be obeyed regardless of whether or not there is a camera. Second, the funding of bicycle and pedestrian improvements should not be dependant on the violations of motorists to fund critical improvements for them. Third, once money is involved, it becomes difficult for engineers to use other methods to help reduce red-light running related collisions at intersections (such as increasing the yellow clearance interval or installing larger signal indications). Finally, using funds from red light cameras for things not even remotely related creates more public ill will towards these cameras. And when more than 800 people are killed and 200,000 more are injured each year in collisions resulting from red light running motorists, we don’t need to encourage those feelings.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sometimes, you just luck out

One of these special moments occurred for me yesterday. After 2 days of being sick and watching Regis and Kelly (oh God, kill me now), I was finally in some shape to return to work. Once there I looked at the window. And to my surprise, SDOT was installing a new flashing crosswalk light at 5th Ave S & S King St

What is neat about this whole event is the fact that, for most of us, these things just happen. You don’t know when they happened; they just simply appeared, like gnomes. Anyways, so now some facts…

SDOT installs yellow flashing lights at a number of crosswalk locations. The one seen here is one of the older versions. It’s kind of a retro-looking device that appears to be made out of someone’s garage (side note: You would be surprised by the number of things traffic engineers make in their garages/basements/etc that end up on roadways). It is likely that this device came from one of the recently removed crosswalk locations and is being reused at this location. The housing itself holds a small incandescent light which provides additional lighting to the crosswalk. A small photocell is on top of the housing turns on the light. The amber flashing light is on 24-hrs a day providing a constant warning to drivers. Overall, this is a very simple device.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

No, you’re not drunk and seeing double…

You’re seeing one of the most recent installations of shared lane use markings, or sharrows, on Yesler Way in downtown Seattle. These markings are meant to indicate to motorists and bicyclists that there is likely to be bike traffic on this road and that both modes should share the road.

Seattle, like other large cities, has curb side parking which converts to a travel lane during the peak hours. Typically, this doesn’t really require anything more than No Parking signs with a time restriction on them for motorists like this.

But, now, how do you mark a roadway with sharrrows with this condition? Do you put a marking in the lane that is always open but becomes the left lane during the peak hours? Do you put a marking in the right lane which is parking for a majority of the day?

Seattle has decided that it will do both options. On one side when parking is allowed, the marking will be covered, so it won’t look like someone got crazy with the thermoplastic. Then, when the right lane is a travel lane, it just gives extra warning that bikes can legally be in either lane. This is an often forgotten rule by motorists.

Overall, this is a difficult situation and one that will doubtlessly come up again as large cities try to incorporate these markings on their streets. It should be interesting to see how this turns out. Now, if they could just repaint that broken white line…

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Another misspelled sign

I know, I know...these posts are a dime a dozen but I can't help it. Here is a newly installed street name sign and right above it is the old one. The old one is right, the new one is wrong. So close guys, so close.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I-90 and the NEW Speed Limit Signs

Ok, so this is a quick piece of info...on a trip back from Bellevue yesterday I noticed that the speed limit signs are electronic now.

Instead of your standard sign, the speed part of the sign is changeable! Unlike radar speed limit signs, the speed part of these signs actually look like speed limit signs.

Pictures will follow soon!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Does it take someone to get killed....

Traffic engineers hear this complaint hundreds of times during their career. I think I’ve heard it about 1,000 times so far but I figure I still have 30 more years to go.

That being said we, as traffic engineers, don’t really help ourselves much when we include crashes (“accidents” is really a misnomer) as a criteria to install certain things. Take these as a few examples:

  • All-way stops 5 crashes in a 12-month period
  • Traffic signal 5 crashes in a 12-month period
  • Residential Traffic Circles (in Seattle) 3 crashes in a 24-month period

There are caveats to all of these, but you get the point.

If we were to look at the roadway system as a human body, it may make some more sense why crashes get included in these criteria. Let’s assume that you live a relatively healthy life. You eat well. You exercise occasionally. You see the doctor every once in a while. Everyday, the hundreds of systems in your body has thousands of interactions with other systems both internally and externally. Most of the time, these systems and interactions work fine. Every so often, though, things don’t go so well. You may catch a cold. You might extend yourself too much and break a bone or two. Or, something more serious like a disease may strike.

Most of the time, the hardy traffic engineers at the DOT catch a lot of problems before any one sees them. In the manner of leprechauns and elves, the elusive engineers have crews come out and cut back the trees blocking the view. They might even see the need for a sign before the inevitable citizen phone call comes in. Maybe, they might call out for a new crosswalk before the email from a city council member is in the in box.

Now, let’s take a typical example to put all of this to work. You call the Public Works Department and ask for a stop sign at the intersection next to school where your daughter goes to school. First thing the engineer is likely to do is to look up the crash history of the intersection. Why? Well, a couple of reasons, 1) it’s easy and nowadays can be pulled up on a computer screen and 2) a quick look can show if there is a potential problem. This is like when a doctor pulls up your family history and sees that your parents had diabetes and therefore, you have a higher risk of getting it too. Second, the engineer will go out and see the intersection and at the same time see how much traffic is going through the intersection, if the average driver can see traffic approaching while at the intersection, and watch how traffic behaves normally. This is the doctor’s examination. Then the engineer makes a recommendation and the stop sign may or may not be installed. It’s the diagnosis portion of the doctor appointment.

So, does this now make some sense about how the traffic engineer’s mind works? It’s not really that exciting or funny…which somewhat describes a good lot of traffic engineers.

Got a question on traffic? Drop me a line.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Oh, that wackly Las Vegas

Need I say more...