A Radical Intersection Recommendation

A December post asked if we have too many stoplights in Minneapolis. The prolific commenters gave a resounding “YES!”

Red Light, Waiting for Nothing

Red Light, Waiting for Nothing on a Warmish Day

I’d been thinking about the same question ever since it got cold, as I’m a year-round bike commuter to downtown.  I’m not very good at leaving work at the same time as everyone else. That means I spending a lot of time freezing/waiting at lights in a traffic-free downtown and feeling like an idiot for not running the lights. Sometimes I shiver and do, but I’ve got my self-identity as a basically rule-abiding Minnesotan to preserve.  (Norwegian genes, I guess.)

All that time waiting at lights has given me plenty of time to think, particularly about my time in Norway.  I didn’t recall any sitting and waiting at lights, and although I was mostly in Oslo I don’t recall much congestion.

Noodling on that reminded me of a traffic law I struggled to grasp when I arrived there at age 18.  The concept I was trying to understand was “vikeplikt,” [Google trying to translate the Wikipedia entry on vikeplikt] which I now know is “duty to yield.”

A Norwegian yield sign -- an incredibly common sight.

A Norwegian yield sign — incredibly common.

As an American passenger with two years driving experience, this “right of way” thing seemed like drivers were reading each others’ minds at 40mph. That’s when someone explained about “høyreregelen”or the “right rule.” Did you read the last line of that Wikipedia article carefully?  Let me give it a more legible shot:  If the intersection is not otherwise marked, vehicles must give way to vehicles coming from the right (“right rule”).

Yep – you just always yield to cars coming from the right.  Sure, some streets (mostly roads) get a consistent right of way as marked with these signs.  My favorite sign is a pavement marking, yield arrows.  They are used in most places where someone has a duty to yield, and if they are point at you, you better not inconvenience anyone coming from the cross street.

Norway's Vegvesen's instructions for marking a roundabout. Those tiny dots are yield arrows. (Details here http://www.vegvesen.no/s/bransjekontakt/Hb/hb017-1992/DelC_Detaljkapitler/18.Vegkryss/18_Detaljutforming_av_rundkjoringer.htm)

Norway’s Vegvesen’s instructions for marking a roundabout. The triangles are yield arrows. (Details here.)

What yield arrows look like in person.

What yield arrows look like in person on a newly paved road.

As for actual stop signs and lights, they exist, but are amazingly rare — at least to an American driver.

So, there you have it. Fantastically efficient and predictable traffic management at intersections, no waiting if there’s no oncoming traffic, and all without spending millions installing and hundreds of thousands powering (and repairing, and replacing) traffic lights.

Sadly, I’m certain my revolutionary recommendation is not viable to save my cold fingers in a Minneapolis January.  I’ll try to warm them with envy of those pedaling around Norway* while I’m sitting at the lights, waiting.  Of course, they have to deal with cobblestones.

 

 

*Norway is no bike rider paradise, design- or weather-wise.


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9 Responses to A Radical Intersection Recommendation

  1. Jenifer Hanson January 21, 2014 at 9:44 am #

    Excellent article! Since moving to Minneapolis, whether biking or driving, my biggest traffic-related frustration has been the amount of time I sit at red lights when there is absolutely no one else anywhere near the intersection. American systems don’t seem to handle the concept of “flow” well…

  2. Jeff Klein January 21, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    I noticed and loved the number of yield signs in Europe long before I had much interest in urbanism. It just made so much more sense. The stop and go thing is annoying in cars, but even worse for bikes.

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke January 21, 2014 at 9:56 am #

    And incredibly cheap, I imagine (despite the fact that Norway has tons of money).

  4. Mike Hicks January 21, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

    I’m a fan of those “sawtooth” yield markings on pavement. I know of one intersection in St. Paul that uses them, though probably not in the best way — Capitol Heights at the eastern terminus of Como Avenue: http://goo.gl/maps/dUqiH

  5. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell January 21, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

    Janne, I’m with you 100%. While working on an article about roundabouts some time ago, I tracked how much time each day I spent waiting at lights unnecessarily. 17 minutes per day average.

    When I first moved to MN there were many uncontrolled intersections that effectively functioned as yields. Rather than putting in stop signs and lights, I think a bunch of sharks teeth like you recommend would have been much better.

  6. Brendan January 22, 2014 at 1:32 pm #

    If I recall my MN law correctly, I think yielding to the car on the right at an intersection IS actually the rule of the road in MN. Its certainly the rule at 4 way stops. The problem is that in MN people seem to have a lot of trouble yielding (and more importantly, taking) their ROW at intersections. In MN, this would result in endless traffic jams as everyone stubbornly tried to wave the other cars through. I call it the Minnesota Stand-off.

  7. Rosa January 26, 2014 at 12:13 am #

    I don’t notice car drivers yeilding when they are supposed to without being physically blocked, even when the “other” vehicle is a train or a little kids crossing at a marked crosswalk in front of a school, so I imagine it would take a really intense amount of policing to achieve this.

  8. Cedar January 26, 2014 at 5:10 pm #

    As primarily a pedestrian (or a bus rider), I’ve got to say that I feel like the more stop lights the better — primarily because while I still see people run red lights, I still feel safer crossing at a light than with a stop sign, or at a busy street with no light or sign at all. I just don’t trust drivers around here to yield when they are supposed to yield, whatever the law. Now perhaps with enough education and strong political will (and accompanying enforcement) that could change.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell January 26, 2014 at 6:01 pm #

      Cedar, roundabouts, if designed properly, are actually safer. When you are crossing you only have to look for cars coming from one single direction vs as many as 5 and most often 3 directions at intersections with lights. Roundabouts don’t require as many lanes leading in to them (much less queing room) so you also cross fewer lanes.

      From a drivers perspective you always encounter crossings at a perpendicular angle so it’s much easier to see people crossing and these happen before the roundabout and after the roundabout so you’re not having to deal with cars coming from multiple directions at the same time that you SHOULD, but often are not, looking for people in the crossings.

      If you look at Janne’s diagram above you can see how this works. I agree that people often do not yield when they should and this is a critical issue. Roundabouts do seem to help though since they make pedestrians a bit more obvious and do not mix pedestrians in with vehicular traffic as intersections do.

      As well, raising the crossing a bit can help since it forces drivers to slow a bit and provides a PITA reminder that there is a crossing (and helps keep crossing more clear of snow and water which helps pedestrians and helps drivers to see them better).