Turning Off the Lights

January 6, 2012 in Thinking Differently by bikewalkadmin

LONDON – Although some ideas may seem radical on the surface, they may still be worthy of consideration. The radical concept of shared space as a traffic calming device in urban areas has been discussed and experimented with, primarily in Europe.

The idea of shared space says if you take away traffic control devices, people will drive, walk and bicycle more carefully, negotiating with others at intersections. Accidents will decrease because people carefully reduce their speed when others’ actions are uncertain.

If we take a step back from the traffic-light-controlled world we are used to, stopping at a red light when no other people or vehicles are around does seem kind of silly. Yet, that’s what millions of road users do every day.

Traffic control devices take decision-making away from everyone and can often make drivers less focused and attentive when they have a green light or the right-of-way.

In the videos below, some experiments were performed in England to show what can happen when traffic lights are turned off. Many congested intersections moved quicker and auto-pedestrian deaths dropped.

It would be interesting to conduct such an experiment in Tulsa or a surrounding community. Of course you might imagine this could work in a lower volume area with two-lane traffic, but how would this work in high traffic areas like 71st Street between Memorial and Garnett where there are 6 to 8 lanes?

The idea for the traffic light experiments in the videos above came when the lights malfunctioned and road users noticed that congestion decreased. I’m not sure that Tulsans have experienced similar results when our traffic lights malfunction. But who knows? Many of the roads in the video above were narrow. Would there need to be modifications, such as narrowing roads, to make such a system work?

While shared space and the practice of turning off traffic lights are not likely to show up anytime soon in Tulsa, these ideas do have some merit to them that are worth thinking about. We do know slower speeds increase safety. Perhaps turning off the lights in urban areas would cause people to drive more carefully and reduce traffic injuries and deaths.