Wednesday, November 29, 2006

One of the Many Things

about this world that I just don't understand:

Stoplights. Or, as our friends at the Institute of Traffic Engineers like to call them: "traffic control systems". Of course, this term makes you envision something that has been planned, designed, engineered, thought about, or at least considered in some remotely intelligent way.

I'm sure many traffic signals, and more importantly the intersections that have them, do fit this description. To be fair, I know that they exist, and have used them. I like them, and believe they are a credit to our evolution as a species.

On the other hand. Being someone's brother-in-law does not make one an engineer. Nor does receiving a (presumably) lucrative contract to "engineer" something.

By the same token, erecting poles, putting pretty lights on them, and painting lines on the road does not constitute implementing a traffic control system. In fact, in certain cases that I am personally aware of, it constitutes, at best, an infuriating mess, and at worst, an environmental scourge and a safety hazard.

Consider if you will, a well-traveled suburban artery, 3 lanes in each direction, intersecting with another road. Well, not so much a road... more like what I, eschewing engineer-speak, call a "place on a road where there are infrequently-used entrances to parking lots on either side". I hesitate to call this an intersection, as that term implies at least 2 roads, but I suppose we must call it that because of the presence of approximately 8 different poles, sturdily constructed, with horizontal gantries, adorned with approximately 24 different arrays of signals. Plus a whole bunch of painted lines delineating various crosswalks and left- and right-turn-only lanes. In other words, a hell of a lot of expensive hardware and construction.

Now then. Consider a typical weekday morning in this delightful suburb, where business persons (Tahoes), office workers (Pathfinders), customer service personnel (Explorers), real estate brokers (Escalades), soccer moms (Suburbans), small business owners (King Cab trucks), and lawn care professionals (1995 GMC crew cab pulling overloaded trailer) are all motoring along this pristinely maintained suburban artery, 10 mph over the 45 mph speed limit, on their way to do whatever it is they do to enable them to fill their 25 gallon gas tanks twice a week.

Try to calculate in your mind the amount and different kinds of energy that are expended when, hundreds of times a week, every week of every year, 30+ of these vehicles and all of their occupants must suddenly, inexplicably, slam on their brakes, come to a complete stop at a red light, wait about three minutes for the lights to cycle through all the various configurations, then accelerate back up to 55mph from a dead stop, all so that the "cross traffic" can proceed through the intersection unimpeded. Said cross traffic, of course, consisting of... ABSOLUTELY NOTHING AND NO ONE.

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