Tuesday, February 9, 2010

red light stop, green light go, yellow light gun it: large street intersections + pleasure addiction


Image of San Vicente Blvd. & La Cienega Blvd. from Matt Logue's wonderful Empty LA series.

All of us at some point have experienced the Point of No Return: we’re driving along when we spot a green signal up ahead, and wonder: is this a fresh go, or a stale green on the brink of turning yellow? Let's say it does, leaving us to decide: Stop and face a three-minute wait, or just gun it. Now let’s say we choose to sail on through: yes! No long wait for us. We accelerate, our bodies compressed by mild Gs, our forward movement unabated...until we reach the next intersection up ahead.

The obvious problem to all this is that there is always another intersection ahead. We find ourselves trapped in a never-ending cascade of signal-chasing, each of us addicted to making the next green-lit checkpoint as if we were living out a game of Need For Speed. It's a crazy way to live; we know this. We sense it every time some crazed Beemer races past us, dodging in and out of lanes only to wind up a mere single car length ahead at the next stop light. But we also know how satisfying uninterrupted travel can be, how it can give us feelings of control, ownership of the road, mastery over our vehicle, even schadenfreude at breezing past those unlucky bastards stuck waiting.

The less obvious problem with LA’s intersections is related to (you guessed it) street width. Vast intersections, like the nine-lane behemoth above, move larger quantities of traffic at higher speeds than small ones, and therefore require longer signal cycles to allow drivers adequate reaction time. That doesn’t just mean longer red lights. It also means longer yellow lights, which means more time for drivers to waver between slamming their brakes and risking a run through a red light — a potentially deadly conundrum.

Any spot where multiple flows interface one another is inherently dangerous. The higher the speed, the greater the chance for collision; the more players there are involved, the more complicated negotiating said interface becomes. So in addition to being more crashtastic, large intersections also require more expensive controls like signals, timing boxes, cameras, infrared overrides, and walk countdowns.

Massive crossroads like the one above inevitably appear in any growing city that has developed major boulevards between centers of commerce. That's no surprise. LA's problem is that practically all of its streets are boulevards; every one of its "local" streets is a hulking six-lane affair, resulting in vast intersections as the norm — not as exceptions to the rule of, say, a more finely-grained network of smaller streets left over from older times. Instead of distributing traffic among many tiny capillaries, Angelenos are left with relatively few, giant arteries, creating intense pressure points that everyone must pass through for all uses: commuting, hauling cargo, or just running simple errands. It's a one-size-fits-all approach that winds up fitting no one very well.

This single-minded approach basically leaves us with two travel speeds: very slow (residential roads) and very, very fast (boulevards). But humans aren't good with such sudden changes in scenery — we deal better with moderate, gradual behavior. We can't gorge on food one day and starve the next; nor can we forgo rest during the work week for "catch-up sleep" on the weekends. Car life exposes us to extremes of adrenaline (green light! sprint!) and ennui (red light! stop!) that test our bodily tolerances, turning us into road-ragers all endlessly striving to ride that pleasurable green wave as long as we can to maintain a sense of stability — an impossible endeavor. Part of me thinks our protesting bodies know better; they know what's wrong before our minds do. Our intersection anxiety may very well be a manifestation of deeper instincts struggling to correct a fundamentally unpredictable, unreliable, and unhealthy situation.

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Los Angeles, CA, United States
Writer, designer, and urban planning geek.

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