At CNU 22 in Buffalo last month, I met an Englishman during a pub crawl. He was a pleasant enough chap, but kept wandering in to the quiet streets of downtown Buffalo, as if to demonstrate how much space we waste in our cities by giving it over solely to cars. Little did I know this Englishman was Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a traffic and urban design consultant, and that he’d be giving the keynote lunch address the following day at lunch. Well, Hamilton-Baillie, shown below lying on Bank Street in Ashford (he does this everywhere), knocked it out of the park. Among the many provocative and relevant things he said during his keynote was “I encourage you to take out all the traffic signals in the United States.” And so that brings us to the failed stop sign experiment in Minneapolis.
As it turns out, shortly before CNU 22, the City of Minneapolis turned off the traffic signal at 42nd Street and 28th Avenue to test public opinion using a four-way stop sign. During the experiment, I wrote this piece about my hopes for a more pleasant urban corner. Unfortunately, the only explanation given to the public is that turning off the signal was part of a “test,” and that people should call the city’s 311 line with any opinions. Neither the city nor any other entity gathered any data about whether or not the intersection functioned better or if it was a nicer place to spend time, so lo and behold the majority of people who called 311 were complaining that they could no longer fly through the intersection on a green light. The test (shown below functioning quite well with cars stopping for pedestrians) was supposed to last one month, but after two and one-half weeks the volume of complaints (and robust discussion on the neighborhood forum) was so great that the decision was made at city hall to turn the signal back on.
Fast forward two weeks to Hamilton-Baillie’s June keynote in Buffalo where he referenced a video documenting an intersection redesign in Poynton, England. Called Fountain Place, this intersection in Poynton is at a crossroads of two major roadways, and over the years traffic increased and impacted the quality of life at the town center that surrounded this intersection. So, with Hamilton-Baillie’s design and the support of the local city councilor (this is key), the traffic signal was removed, sidewalks were increased in size and two mini roundabouts, called “roundles,” were installed (shown below).
Curbs were removed, approach lanes were reduced in number and width, and crosswalks were widened. The intention was to create a shared space (below) where traffic moves more slowly through the intersection. More notably, because they no longer have to wait for crossing signals, pedestrians have an improved experience. As Hamilton-Baillie explains in the video, “Once you bring speeds down you get a totally different relationship between pedestrians and drivers.” I encourage you to watch the Poynton video, and while you are at it take another look at A Conversation with an Engineer.
Television host and traffic calming advocate Martin Cassini was quoted in the Poynton video as saying that “Green lights encourage speed and license aggression.” True enough, when the signal at 42nd and 28th was turned back on, the first thing I observed was not only that cars were able to roll through the intersection at an unsafe 30MPH, they again resumed swerving in to the right lane to go around a left turning car, and also resumed accelerating a half block away when they saw the Don’t Walk sign and countdown illuminate. Cassini points out that in the shared space scheme in Poynton, “Pedestrians are fellow street users rather than obstacles in the way of the next light.” Not so at 42nd and 28th. When it was a stop sign, I saw pedestrians and cyclists alike approach the intersection and have the immediate right to cross as “fellow street users.” Once the light was turned back on I saw pedestrians crossing the street against the red light at midday with no cars around.
In Poynton, as the video notes, traffic accidents are down after the redesign of Fountain Square. To their credit, they measured this. At 42nd and 28th in Minneapolis, traffic accident and incident data was not measured before or during the test, so we don’t and never will know which way is safer, for traffic or pedestrians.
So watching the Poynton video demonstrates that removing traffic signals can level the playing field between pedestrians and cars, it can also be better for business. Poynton city councilor Howard Murray explained the shared space concept as being good for business because the town center is more pleasant because of the calmed traffic. “If you are not comfortable, you won’t dwell. And if you don’t spend time there, what’s the chance of you spending money there?” After Fountain Place in Poynton was rebuilt as shared space, retailers reported an 88% increase in footfalls. At 42nd Street and 28th Avenue, nobody asked about the effect on local businesses. So I asked Gary Tolle, owner of A Baker’s Wife, and while he indicated he didn’t think he lost any business, he also noted that the lights weren’t turned off long enough to provide meaningful data. Furthermore, the city of Minneapolis didn’t gather data on impacts on business, much less performance of traffic at the intersection.
Lastly, a pleasant city is a happy city. When the lights were turned off at 42nd and 28th in both 2013 for construction and 2014 for the “test,” I firmly believe the intersection overall was more pleasant. It was easier to cross the street, no cars were moving at 30 MPH, it was quieter and pedestrians and cars were on more equal footing. The before and after in the Poynton video certainly demonstrates the hostility of the intersection before and the relative calm after. When kids who can’t drive believe it is safer and easier, maybe we’re on to something. One Poynton resident was quoted in the video as saying the intersection design has a calming effect. “I think we’re all being kinder to each other.” It is important to strive for a happier city, and I encourage you to read “Happy City” by Charles Montgomery right now.
No important transportation or land use decision is made without controversy. Was closing Times Square in New York popular? Of course not! Janette Sadik-Khan said it herself this past March at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, “closing Times Square was not for the politically faint of heart.” If we base our decision-making on public opinion, like stores do for customers, we won’t meaningfully change our cities for the better. Allowing 100 angry drivers, whose commutes might be one minute longer (again, we don’t know this because nobody measured it), to dictate changes (or lack thereof) to our cities, we’ll be forever stuck in a car-dominated situation.
Gil Penalosa was in Minneapolis in May of this year, and he frequently is quoted as saying “you can build cities for people or for cars, but not both.” With the 42nd and 28th stop sign experiment, the intent was to do the former – build our city for people. Maybe we didn’t roll out this stop sign experiment at 42nd and 28th very well, because certainly the larger issue of the long-term health of the corner was not part of the discussion. All we asked was essentially – “hey drivers, do you like a stop sign or a green light?” What did we expect the answer to be? If we’d have asked instead “do you want a safer, more prosperous, more pleasant and happier commercial node?”, I’m sure people would largely say “yes” and maybe be willing to sacrifice a fraction of their drive time to do so. Then again, as Jeff Speck recently pointed out at the Aspen Ideas Festival, “When you make a change — and it could be any change, good or bad — there will be more complaints than support, because happy people don’t talk much.” In Poynton, there were skeptics to be sure, but there certainly was also a lot of planning and the focus was an effort to make the town center stronger for the long term, and they were wise enough to know that speeding up traffic would have a negative impact.
So if could do this again I’d have done it last summer when the old traffic signal was removed as part of a street construction project (for the record, I tried this, but our neighborhood group didn’t act fast enough to get public works to do it). There was a temporary stop sign then, and I’d have left it and not installed a new signal, saving taxpayers $200,000 to $300,000. I’d also have installed temporary bumpouts for shorter crossing distances, more prominently painted crosswalks, trees and greenery, an on-street bike rack, and a big PR campaign that said “This is a happy corner. This shared space is for people, residents, neighbors and customers of local businesses.”
We can still get this right, people like Hamilton-Baillie with examples of shared space like Poynton can help us get there, and can even do so lying down!
This was crossposted at Joe Urban.