Traffic Lights and Dimwits

This possibly should go under Opinion, but it is wryly humorous


Denver, like most American cities, is very poorly designed for vehicular traffic. The principal streets cross each other at short intervals, and the only way to manage the traffic found by our traffic experts is the traffic light. One or two, fine, but hundreds make a hopeless mess. Only Americans would put up with this without complaint. Traffic lights are almost perfectly stupid, and apparently those who design them are not much better.

As an example, consider Holly and Cherry Creek Drive. This is a fundamentally stupid intersection where Cherry Creek Drive crosses from one side of the creek to the other using Holly. There ought to be roads down both sides, perhaps one way on each side, as there is on Speer Boulevard, but for various reasons, one of which is the existence of the town of Glendale, there are roads only on one side in this area, and not always on the same side. The city seems to be promoting the use of Cherry Creek Drive in spite of the difficulties, and has reorganized this intersection accordingly. As a result, it is a hindrance to traffic on both routes. Sometimes the lights are red in all directions, and there are lines of cars at each red light, with nothing moving, not even pedestrians, for a while. Sometimes a green light leads only to a red light fifty yards further on.

The stupidest thing is a green arrow that comes on when traffic is permitted to turn right onto Cherry Creek Drive North, while the light is red for traffic continuing on Holly. This isn't especially dimwitted, since the idea is that cars should flow from CCD South to CCD North past the two sets of lights. What is dimwitted is that the arrow turns yellow, then the main light goes green. Either keep the green arrow or extinguish it when the main light is green, for heaven's sake! Allowing traffic to proceed on Holly makes no difference to the CCD traffic. Usually, the Holly traffic has been allowed to proceed to the red light while the green arrow is still on. Of course, Denver drivers pay little attention to yellow lights, so I suppose there is no practical effect.

On this subject, many Denver drivers go through red lights, speeding up as they do so, remembering that the light was green a while ago. At Leetsdale and Holly, or Alameda and Holly, which happen to be on my usual route, every red light on Leetsdale or Alameda has cars running it nearly every cycle. I once counted six cars running the red on Alameda. If you drive in Denver, it is a good idea to look out for these criminals. It would seem to be profitable to station a camera and a couple of motorcycle officers at such intersections; they should bring in $1500 or so an hour in fines, while saving life and limb. I have actually seen the aftermaths of accidents at these intersections, so the situation is not just theoretical.

Another interesting intersection is First Avenue and Steele. First Avenue goes through from University to Colorado through the Cherry Creek shopping area. Many people use this route, including me, and always have. Denver decided, however, that we really wanted to swing south at Steele, so they (mis)designed the intersection to make it really difficult to continue straight through on First in either direction. So what if people wanted to go this way? In a free country, you have to do what your masters say. The result is perhaps the stupidest, most inconvenient intersection for miles. Unlike Holly and Cherry Creek Drive, it carries a very large traffic, and produces very large clogs. The intersection was redesigned from its original form to permit some through traffic on First, but with penalties.

Lights in Denver are, for a large part, traffic-controlled. This sometimes confuses the Denver driver, who stops beyond the treadles or short of them in his or her clumsy driving, and does not get the turn light or whatever that they should. Denver drivers seldom stop at the stop lines, but Denver strikes back by not painting stop lines at all now and then, while putting lights across the intersection only. The designers can sometimes get the lights to favor platoons of traffic in one direction, but are baffled in many cases when they have to arrange for bidirectional traffic. Their heads probably begin to hurt when they think about it, so they just stop thinking.

Colorado Boulevard, one of the Ugly Thoroughfares of Denver, possibly one of the most ugly streets in the world (together with Colfax), has simply had traffic lights added and maltimed so that it has a lower traffic capacity than it had 30 years ago. It is best simply to avoid it after 3 pm. There have been no significant additions to traffic-handling capacity on any route in southeast Denver for more than 30 years, although the traffic has increased greatly. The sole significant improvement has been the tunnel on Speer under Broadway, which shows what is needed. Colorado Boulevard needs an elevated expressway from about First to Mexico, with no more than two interchanges between. It would not make the street any uglier than it is. Most changes that have been made impede traffic, not facilitate it. About half the traffic lights could be eliminated, which would greatly improve the traffic flow.

At the busy intersection of Evans and University, for many years left turns were not permitted. An "improvement" of this intersection a few years ago put in left turn lanes. Now traffic backs up in all directions, since the capacity of the intersection is greatly reduced by the left-turn cycle. At other lights, left turns are permitted although there is no left-turn lane. If a left-turn lane cannot be provided at a stoplight, there should be no left turns. In Houston, left turns are not permitted at any main intersection.

Another egregious example is University and Hampden. This is a flat crossing of two multilane roads carrying heavy traffic, which should have been replaced by a grade separation long ago. Just a grade separation, allowing only right turns, would be possible on the land available, but apparently the wealthy in the area would object to anything, and they control the government.

A related matter is the problem of school zones. There are strict speed restrictions, and threats of double fines. The children must be protected, but this is merely shouting and gesticulating, not solving the problem, hinting that there is no real concern amongst the authorities. The children ought to be kept away from the traffic, so that there is no danger. Instead, they are simply let go, and signs are put up. School buses should load on private areas, not at curbside, for heaven's sake! The same goes for parents' cars. School grounds should be fenced to prevent straying onto the streets. And, finally, the children should be well instructed on safety, and not depend on the slow speed or vision of drivers to protect them. Why, indeed, are schools built beside busy streets? Streets are simply dangerous to life of all kinds, and signs are of little help. They allow an assignment of blame, when the real blame lies with the authorities. One notes that Denver erects traffic signals rather than providing footbridges over the streets--it must be cheaper.


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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 4 January 2001
Last revised