Author: David Levinson
An edited version of this appeared on The Conversation June 11, 2018. The original is below.
Traffic signals are a source of great inequality in the urban realm, giving priority to motor vehicles over pedestrians. Cities and states say they want to encourage walking and biking for many reasons: it is space efficient, it has less environmental impact, it is healthier, it is safer for other travelers, and, since, it reduces the numbers of cars on the road, even motorists should be in favour of other people walking. To help achieve that, road management agencies should take the lead in reprioritising traffic signals by redistributing intersection delay from pedestrians to cars.
While planners tend to focus on the long-term decisions, like infrastructure and land development, it is the shortest of short-term decisions, how many seconds of green light each movement gets at an intersection, that shapes daily perception of the feasibility of walking or driving to a destination at a given time, and thus the choice of route, destination, and mode of travel. Traffic signal timing involves math, so it has been historically delegated to the engineers, but it also involves values and priorities, and so is the proper subject of public policy.
Since the early twentieth century dawn of what Peter Norton calls ‘Motordom’ in his book ‘Fighting Traffic‘, street space has steadily been regulated and enclosed, limiting the rights and privileges of pedestrians while promoting those of drivers as a class, in the name of safety and efficiency. But we should ask safety and efficiency for whom? Prior to traffic signals, pedestrians could and did cross the street whenever and wherever they wanted, before the term ‘jaywalking’ was invented and street crossing was regulated. The introduction of signals prioritised the movement of motor vehicles at the expense of pedestrians, whose effective walking speed through the city necessarily slowed. The consequences of making it easier to drive and harder to walk
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