01 November 2008

1. Press Button 2. Wait for Signal 3. Cross Illegally

So I've just got back from the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference, and I could blog about some of the interesting conversations I had, or a couple of interesting sessions I caught, or enjoyable time catching up with old friends and colleagues and making new ones, but what I want to write about today is bad traffic engineering.

I stayed in the Peabody Hotel, directly across from the Orange County Convention Center West Hall where the conference was held, and crossed back and forth International Drive several times a day. There's a crossing with a signal and a button - push the button, the light turns red for the traffic, and you can safely cross. At least, that's how it should work.

Instead, you press the button and wait. And wait. And wait. Until you finally get impatient, look for cars and cross illegally. If you stood there and watched you'd see 10 people cross illegally for every person who crossed with a green signal.

A few people pay no attention to crossing lights (in Manhattan, few people do) but most instinctively press the button and wait, at least the first time. But the wait is too long - I timed it, about 1 minute and 20 seconds. After 15 seconds with no cars, your foot starts to twitch; after 30 seconds you're looking down the road to see if it's clear; and 10 seconds later you're on your way across. Each time you cross the intervals get shorter, until by the second day you might not even bother to push the button.

So what's the big deal? Well, it's actually a pretty dangerous place to cross. The cars are moving fast, and there's a bend in the road that makes it hard to see far. It's easy to step out and see a line of cars or a bus bearing down on you.

This is so easy to fix! The light should be programmed so if you press the button and their are no cars approaching, it immediately turns orange and then red for the cars and lets you cross in, say, 10 seconds. Of course, this would have required the extra cost of a couple of road sensors, but instead the traffic engineers who designed this crossing (or perhaps their penny-pinching managers) have created a dangerous intersection. Bad design can kill.

Just to make it worse - Orlando is full of English tourists. In the UK, the crossings have a painted reminder and arrow telling you which way to look for traffic, but the Orlando crossing lacks that helpful amenity - and it would be easy and tragic for anyone from a country where the cars drive on the left to make the fatal error of looking the wrong direction and then stepping out into the street.

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