Wednesday 8 June 2011

Three Way Street - Chaos in New York

Mike Rubbo sent me a link to this video by Ron Gabriel. It's very nicely made, and shows very dramatically the points of conflict which he saw over a brief period of time.

However, I think the way Ron himself as well as other people who have commented on the video talk about what they see is quite telling.

The discussion on Vimeo and on the blog is about "long-standing bad habits" of users of various modes, about "selfish people" and enforcement of the law.

I don't see the behaviour at this junction as being about "bad habits". What I see is simply a very badly designed junction which almost invites people to behave in the way that they do.

Dutch road junctions don't look like and work like this - the designs are different for a reason: A long-standing theme of Dutch road design is the concept of Sustainable Safety. Conflict is removed, collisions are therefore rare and the consequences of those collisions which remain are relatively small compared with other countries. Roads are made self-explanatory so that excessive signing is not depended upon to reduce bad behaviour but the way in which people behave is changed because of their environment. Less "enforcement" is needed when people have no reason to want to do dangerous things. This has resulted in the safest roads in the world.

The links below take you to several examples of these principles at work, some of which if adopted in New York could reduce the problems at junctions like this:
Most of these examples deal with cycling more than other modes. The others deal with pedestrians. There are reasons for this emphasis.

It's quite common in other countries that cyclists are singled out for more criticism than other groups. There is a reason for this. While there are sidewalks for pedestrians and roads for drivers, cyclists have no true place of their own and are left with a choice of "sharing the road" rather unequally with motor vehicles or riding illegally on the sidewalk. Cyclists are an out-group not only in social terms but also in terms of road design.

Road design overall is in general rather too dominated by motor vehicles. That's certainly the case in New York, and while New Yorkers walk quite a lot, conditions for cycling remain poor. This contributes to the still very low cycling rate of the city. There is an inadequate level of all three types of safety for cyclists and the lack of subjective safety is especially clear from watching the video.

Even amongst those who are brave enough to cycle in the city, few would want or encourage their children or grandparents doing the same thing.

There is a solution to this problem, but it doesn't come from maintaining the design status quo while enforcing rules. Design of infrastructure needs to change to reflect the usage which you want to have and to encourage people to behave in a safe way. It's especially important at intersections.


Anonymous said...

My sarcastic Vimeo response, if I had a Vimeo account:

Letdown. I was expecting to see an actual three-way, Bangkok-style melee, not a boring everyday US street.

A prominent Vimeo comment on the video:

As far as I can see, the driving factor behind all the problems and dangers shown here isn't so much the design of the intersection, but rather selfish people (walking, biking, or driving) who don't follow the rules that everyone else abides by.

This flawed logic governs much of the decision-making in the United States. Our culture likes to blame things on "rogue" individuals, implying that certain people are inherently malicious or negligent. In transport issues, it used to be targeted at just the cyclists, but now the "progressive" attitude is that all parties are complicit.

I'm happy that you continue to bring attention to this issue, though I don't think anyone in North America is listening. Here in Philadelphia, cycling advocates and police have started an enforcement campaign based on the "rogue" user ideology. Instead of observing flaws in traffic planning, they're telling us that some people are just bad for the fun of it.

Martin said...

I think though your are right in what you say about junction design there is a breed of cyclist in New York and in other cities who's goal it is to ride through the city not obeying any law.

dr2chase said...

Driving a car is a long-standing selfish bad habit, isn't it?

John in NH said...

I agree 100% with David, however we also must remember that children are educated in traffic from a young age, we do not have that here in the US. You take 6 months(or less) of drivers ed, get a licence and you are good to go. You get some help from parents, but that is presuming they know the rules.

Also the idea of rogue people is real, I have seen a couple of them in David's videos, folks that run onto the sidewalk (to bypass the waiting bikes) run the red across the road, and while they do not get hit, still are participating in very risky behavior. They are there, but in the Netherlands, I think a very very small %. In the US though, the nature of cycling encourages more of those type onto the roads, and less of the regular folks.

The infrastructure does not work for pedestrians (too long a wait time, too far to walk, not pleasant), it does not work for cars,(allows speeding, lights are not timed/poorly triggered), and it does not work for cyclists, (not triggering lights, unnecessary stops, cyclist can see/hear more than a car driver, speeding cars etc)

we can do better though, but not easily.

Duncan Watson said...

As an exNYer and someone who worked in Manhattan for 7 years, the video is a bit of a yawner for me. When Guilani (sic) was trying to clear up jaywalking in the later half of the 90s, the radio guys were making jokes. "What is he going to install giant nets on the buildings to scoop everyone up?" In fact I used to talk about the silliness with a cop friend of mine as we walked across the middle of 34st St to go to McDonalds.

Manhattan is much more walkable than Seattle, and many more people walk there.

Edward said...

John in NH:

Children in English-speaking countries are also taught about traffic from a young age. Without having had any experience with the method of teaching in the Netherlands, I suspect it is vastly different there. The "education" here (Australia) places the onus firmly on the child to keep him or herself safe. It extends in some cases to encouraging the use of fluorescent vests. Very little thought appears to be given to slowing cars down or, as David says, reducing those conflicts.

The result is adults who cannot properly drive in a way that takes into account the needs of other road users. That is not their fault of course. They have grown up in that environment. I often find myself waiting to cross the road at a slip lane and drivers speed past about 2 feet away from utterly oblivious to my presence. They don't mean to do that but the road environment allows it.

What the Dutch have done with the concept of "sustainable safety" is set up a road system that tells road users exactly how they are expected to behave and invariably they do.

Fonant said...

Here in the UK we have a mature Health & Safety community. For dangers in the workplace they clearly state the priority for making changes, from most effective to least effective, goes:

1) Remove the danger (remove cars)
2) Minimise the danger (slower maximum speeds)
3) Separate the danger from the people (physically separate cars from pedestrians and cyclists)
4) As a last resort, provide personal protective equipment (high-viz clothing, helmets, padding, etc.)

We can clearly see that the Netherlands approach to road safety follows this well. While in the UK and USA we seem to do things in completely the wrong order, with the least effective things given most priority.

Neil said...

To my mind, the US "jaywalking" offence just shows had wrong their approach is to people and cars. Why don't you have the right to use the public highway! Why do you have to find an official crossing point and wait until the auto traffic 'allow' you to cross! That is just soooo wrong!

Hobbes vs Boyle said...


I totally agree. I think it's quite telling that German (and I believe Dutch) doesn't have a word for jaywalking. Only after having lived in the US for quite some time I even grasped what jaywalking meant. I had always assumed that it meant crossing the road when having a red pedestrian light. The idea that you're have to use marked or unmarked crosswalks to get across a street (where your right of way is almost always ignored in most US states) still seems utterly absurd to me.

J.. said...

I can make heads nor tailes of the system that's supposed to be governing this intersection. And from the looks of it, neither can it's users. No wonder people get hurt.

If I'm not mistaken, you're not allowed to cross a street in the Netherlands within 30(m) distance of a zebra crossing. In such cases, use of the zebra is mandatory.

Anonymous said...

The 30m requirement was withdrawn as no-one could reliably estimate what 30m was, anyway.

Will Campbell said...

I can't so readily dismiss peoples’ bad habits as being the fault of the intersection’s design. It’s a bit like absolving shoplifters because a store’s poor layout better enabled the theft.

You point out there are certainly better designs out there that remove or reduce conflict among the modes, but I’m just not so ready to excuse the reckless behaviors shown simply because that junction isn’t one of them.

J.. said...

@Will Campbell
You make a good point. Some of the conflict is due to the intersection design, and some is due to flagrant transgressions of the rules of the road. But the main point is, that the two are related. Most of the people jumping red lights and making illegal turn in the video, wouldn't think about beating you up or breaking into your house. Why is it that perfectly decent people sometimes behave in this way?

People behave much better when it's absolutely clear how they should behave. Well designed infrastructure helps to achieve that goal. I don't want to dismiss peoples bad behavior. I mean, we can still give them traffic tickets, but they'll be a lot more likely to be ashamed of themselves if we do it at a well designed intersection with smoothly running traffic flow.