Thoughts on Traffic Flow, Traffic Lights, and More

Because I am eternally lazy, like most of my essays, I will not include any photos or diagrams here. While I do not plagiarize, when writing essays unrelated to my formal education, I enjoy making theoretical or logical arguments that do not require citations.

I always find it annoying to be stopped needlessly at red lights when there are no cars coming. We have an intersection in Daytona Beach, Nova Rd. and 3rd St., where, at night, like clockwork, the traffic light for the superior road turns red every few seconds, even when there are no cars coming. I suppose there are no car sensors for 3rd Street which is the reason for the needless cycling, but it is such a waste of time, fuel, and brake pads.

Superior and Inferior Roads

Civil engineers probably have their own jargon, but I would define superior roads as getting the majority of travel time (green light time) at an intersection and inferior roads as getting the minority. While roads are sometimes equally matched, in most cases, one is clearly superior. Typically, the superior road gets more traffic. Ironically, the inferior road often may have more travel lanes—for example, in Ormond Beach and Daytona Beach, FL, West Granada Blvd. (SR-40) and International Speedway Blvd. (US-92) are clearly superior in their intersections with Nova Rd. (SR-5A), but both have only six–seven lanes at these intersections versus eight lanes for Nova Rd. (lane counts include turn lanes). While it is plainly obvious that a road will be superior at some intersections and inferior at others, it is perhaps less obvious that a road’s status may vary at different points or even at the same point at different times of the day or year.

Clues to the superiority of a road can often (but not always) be inferred by number of lanes and signals. In Daytona Beach, Dunn Ave.’s superiority to White St. and LPGA Blvd.’s superiority to Derbyshire Rd. are supported by the presence of protected right turns (arrows) while left turns on the inferior road are not offered protected turns. At stop signs where cross traffic does not stop, the road with stop signs is the de facto inferior road.

Red Arrows and Rubato

In most U.S. states, it is illegal to turn left on a red arrow, even when obviously safe to do so. This results in a lot of wasted time, not just for drivers turning left, but also for drivers going straight who are forced to stop so the left-turning drivers can receive a protected turn. In the Ormond and Daytona Beach areas, many left arrows were recently replaced with new signals that show a flashing yellow arrow at most times, allowing drivers more autonomy at these intersections. Of course, such arrows could be configured to offer a protected turn if a driver has been waiting a long time, and to show a solid red arrow during rush hour to discourage dangerous maneuvers.

Rubato is a musical term that means “the temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, usually without altering the overall pace,” according to the top definition provided via Google Search. I think this is an apt term for referring to the practice of turning left on a late-yellow or red arrow. This practice definitely varies in different cultures and regions. For example, when visiting Los Angeles, I was alarmed to see drivers violating my right-of-way, continuing to turn left long after my light had turned green, particularly since this is a rare sight in Central Florida. Similarly, I think it’s rude when drivers without right-of-way make any maneuvers that require me to brake, even though other cultures may have an entirely different perspective on it.

While drivers practicing rubato may be delaying thru traffic for a couple seconds, they may also be providing a service by preventing left-turn lanes from becoming overfilled, which is a common phenomenon along Alafaya Trail near my university (University of Central Florida). Clearly, they are also self-motivated by saving a non-trivial amount of time—perhaps as much as two minutes, depending on the intersection.

All-Red Time

It would be unwise to go further without discussing all-red time, also known as clearing time. This is the time during which all directions of traffic at an intersection have a red light. Two seconds is the typical time in Central Florida. I was surprised to see zero all-red time in the East Bay area of California. Traffic is much denser there, putting time at a premium. In Daytona Beach, arrows often stay green even several seconds after all cars have turned left, followed by more seconds of yellow and two seconds all-red time. In the Bay Area, the arrow often turns yellow just a couple seconds after turning green, which is a more efficient use of time. (Note: Another possibility is that the East Bay area traffic signaling systems are antiquated and an all-red time simply cannot be set.)

Of course, all-red time has an interactive relationship with what is culturally acceptable when driving. With two seconds of all-red time, one can “run” a red light without cross traffic even noticing. While long all-red periods are inefficient, they may also be a function of state law—for example, in Florida, a driver who has cleared the crosswalk before a traffic light turns red has not committed an infraction, whereas in Oregon, any driver who could have stopped at a yellow light but failed to do so has committed an infraction. Obviously, Florida must be much more lenient with all-red time due to state laws.

Why “Running” Red Lights Does Not Typically Cause Accidents

The idea that “running” a red light can cause an accident is often a misnomer. What really causes accidents is plowing through a red light that has been red for a long time, due to failing to notice the traffic light itself. Especially in areas with two-second all-red times, most traffic in other directions is going to be stopped for 3–5 seconds after the light turns red for the red-light-runner. One possible exception is left-turning drivers who hang out in the middle of the intersection, expecting to turn left on late-yellow or red after oncoming traffic has halted. However, such drivers might be at fault for failing to yield or other infractions. My point here is that “running” a red light may be less dangerous than commonly perceived (though still illegal).

Aggressive Driving

On the Interstate highways (freeways) in Central Florida, it is alarming how aggressive many drivers are. At speeds over 80 miles per hour, they often succeed at squeezing between the nose of your car and the bumper of the car in front of you, despite having very little clearance, and often without even signaling. This usually helps them get a few seconds ahead, which is clearly, in their minds, worth endangering the lives of all the surrounding drivers and passengers. I have convex “spot” mirrors affixed to my left and right mirrors, which I check religiously since they reveal blind spots. Most other drivers do not think these mirrors are helpful and would prefer checking their rear-view mirror or looking over their shoulder, which is very stupid in my opinion.

Tailgating is also very common, which is the dangerous practice of following very closely to the car in front of you. I am not sure whether drivers do this out of deliberate intimidation, or as a habit to avoid other drivers inserting themselves in between. No matter what speed you go, there is always someone to tailgate you.

Toll Roads, Social Justice

Toll roads are simply a fact of life in the Orlando, FL area, due to I-4’s lack of capacity and widespread congestion. There are times of the day where it can be a lot faster to drive 10 miles extra on toll roads than to take a direct route on non-tolled roads. The I-4 Ultimate project, expected to be completed in the early 2020s, includes surge-priced toll lanes intended to keep traffic flowing at 50 miles per hour, which may cost over $10.00 for a one-way trip at peak times. From a social justice perspective, this is arguably similar to a caste system, and is certainly regressive. No consideration is given for the driver’s ability to pay—rich people should arguably have to pay more than poor people, but are charged the same rate. Though everyone has 24 hours in a day, the rich are further advantaged over the poor by being able to pay a sum inconsequential to them to avoid the crowded peasant lanes, while the peasants might literally have to give up several meals to avoid 30 minutes of heavy traffic. Is this just? Not by a long shot.

Social justice can also be applied to civil engineering, pedestrians, and cyclists. Pedestrians and cyclists get the short shrift in Central Florida—drivers assert their dominance (in contradiction to the law) and “might is right” prevails. In contrast, San Francisco cyclists often have dedicated lanes and traffic signals, and may even outnumber motorists. As for civil engineering, getting drivers from point A to point B is often prioritized far too highly (the American love of Interstate motorways is a testament to this). For example, in constructing the recently-completed overpass for US 17–92 over SR 436 in Casselberry, FL, the cost of destroying local businesses (paying owners to buy land and bulldoze them) was $60 million! This far exceeded the cost of $21 million to build the overpass (including special, pricey palm trees). Why is it such a high priority of the State to save commuters, who may contribute nothing to the local economy, a few minutes of time, at such massive social, economic, and cultural cost?

Cultural Expectations of Car Ownership

Being that I mostly make friends with women, I often hear them complain about potential suitors not owning a car. Sometimes, the word “loser” is often thrown in for good measure. These kind of opinions perpetuate the problems we have with too many cars. The infrastructure costs alone are staggering. Currently, billions of dollars of road projects are underway in Orlando, Daytona Beach, Jacksonville, and across the country, just to provide capacity for the individuals who were derided as “losers” until they acquired a car. Not owning a car can be a legitimate choice. Just because car ownership was a marker of adulthood for past generations does not mean this expectation is virtuous or informed. Anyone who calls you a “loser” for not owning a car is not worth your time.

That’s all for now. I find the above topics very interesting, and current traffic flow theory does a surprisingly poor job of addressing them. I may eventually write about other topics such as speed limits, texting and driving, and carbon emissions.

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