Is it good to synchronize traffic signals?

The Champaign County Regional Planning Commission hopes to apply for a $1.94 million federal grant to coordinate the traffic signals at dozens of intersections in the community, covering major corridors such as Neil Street and Prospect, University, Bradley, Mattis and Florida/Kirby avenues.

Champaign-Urbana Urbanized Area Transportation Study…says the proposed “traffic signal energy efficiency and conservation strategy” could reduce the typical motorist’s annual travel times by 20 to 50 percent, cut fuel consumption by 14 percent and reduce carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen dioxide emissions by 13.3 percent.

via The Re-timing of traffic signals could be first stage in overhaul.

Champaign_Illinois_20080301_4107Saving energy, reducing pollution, reducing travel time, all sound good. But synchronized signals along University Avenue may have an insidious consequence.

It’s already the case that University Avenue marks and maintains racial divisions in the cities of Champaign and Urbana. Some people south of University, especially whites, view “north of University” as an area they don’t want to be in. And some blacks north of University may view south of University as an unwelcoming place. The busy traffic corridor with miserable access for pedestrians reinforces the view that these two domains are separate, and necessarily so.

As an already busy traffic corridor, University Avenue makes it difficult for alert, athletic adults to cross from one area of town to another on foot or bicycle. It’s positively unsafe for children or anyone without well-honed defensive faculties. Drivers already go too fast and are inattentive to pedestrians and cyclists. This could become worse with synchronization.

Could the street become safer with synchronization? Maybe. But I doubt that will happen if the only concerns considered are overall vehicular traffic flow.

I’m not sure in the final analysis whether the proposed changes should be done or not, but I do believe that we’d be better off if we were to understand better the symbolic and material consequences of slashing through our community.

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