Sunday, December 30, 2012

NYC Post Sandy: Darkened Traffic Intersections

Hurricane Sandy, with its combination of the storm surge and timing of high-tide, wreaked havoc in parts of every borough in New York City.  Amongst the damage were the striking images of half of the New York City skyline powerless and darkened.  While taking some time to explore the city (by the best means of transit in the days following Sandy: bicycle) I found myself fascinated with the darkened intersections in which the traffic lights were not functioning in the large swath of lower Manhattan that was left without electricity.

While most of the darkened intersections were manned with traffic police, I was very surprised to find that the intersection of Houston, Chrystie St and 2nd Avenue - a very complicated one - was left without police direction.  I took some time to photograph and video document how vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian traffic all came together in a beautiful ad hoc ballet.  There are many fascinating things happening in this scene, though first it should be clear that the volume of traffic for this intersection was much less than the normal.

The video above was taken after electricity was restored and everything in the area had returned to normal.  This is to provide an understanding of the baseline conditions to contrast with the scenes of the darkened intersection below.

The video above shows the scene of the darkened intersection.  To be honest the most shocking thing about this footage to me is that for the entire 1:30 of this video, and for the entire 30 minutes I spent observing the scene, not a single horn was honked!

The situation for pedestrians was certainly more precarious.  For one, they have to wait for  appropriate spacing between vehicles before stepping out into the street.  Then, once out into the crosswalk, they never at any one moment had the entire crosswalk to themselves.  By the time a pedestrian reached the center of the street a vehicle will have already passed behind them and/or they'll be waiting again for another space to cross the second half of the street.  Although the environment was more dicey, in the time I watched, this choreography all went along without a single hiccup.  Quite notably I witnessed no pedestrian that ever felt that they were at enough risk that they needed at any point to run.

The video above shows cyclists navigating the darkened intersection.

The video above shows cyclists navigating the intersection in which the traffic lights are functioning.

Cyclists clearly seemed to be the least affected by the loss of rule and order that traffic lights provide.  Cyclists are generally maligned for their interpretations to the rules of the road in which they commonly roll through red lights and stop signs at intersections.  In the event of the darkened intersections this was the rule of the road and unsurprisingly cyclists were most adapted to the darkened conditions.

Cars, trucks and buses all slowed in their approach then carefully assessed their respective opportunity to proceed through the intersection.  Without traffic lights and the normal set of traffic rules in place, the approach of motor vehicles to the intersection was essentially identical to that of many cyclists' well known tactic to slowly roll-through intersections.  It is rather clear in watching the two videos that the speed of vehicles in the darkened scene traveled much slower.  The critical difference appears to be in that with traffic signals everyone is aware of their respective turn to go and when someone is not moving they're ever-impatiently awaiting it.

Then, since the rules are designed to create clear routes of passage, when their turn finally arrives they will typically accelerate as quickly as possible without much regard or worry that something or someone may be in their path.  However, these rules may in fact lead to more dangerous behaviors: vehicles dangerously speeding and running red lights; pedestrians, vehicles and cyclists all encroaching into paths of on-coming traffic; and finally pedestrians crossing the street without paying proper attention (most often glued to their cell phones).

In observing how road transportation in the city functioned without the normal structure that street signals provide brought to mind questions of how society reacts when the rules become suddenly absent: does chaos ensue or do more reasonable minds prevail?  What I saw was that in the absence of the everyday rules of the road, sidewalk and bike lane, people responded with incredible decency and courtesy towards one another.  Cars, trucks and buses proceeded cautiously, pedestrians were more alert to the dangers of crossing the street -- I observed no pedestrian enter a crosswalk paying more attention to their phones than the traffic -- and cyclists carried on as if little at all had changed. 

To my knowledge there were no reports of injury or death at any of the darkened intersections in Manhattan.  Sadly this was not the case everywhere that lost power in the region.  In New Jersey and Long Island there were incidents in which pedestrians were struck by cars and killed while attempting to cross roads. In the incidents I found each occurred at night and suburban car-oriented environments.  Apparently even as cars approached pitch-black darkened intersections they were travelling too fast to recognize someone crossing the street and conversely too quickly for the pedestrians to escape the on-coming danger once it became apparent.

Non-conventional streetscape interventions, such as psychological traffic calming,  are becoming increasingly popular in the United States and around the world.  Given this and the growing demand for safe, walkable environments it is quite intriguing to think about the possibilities of studying and designing environments in which darkened intersections could be utilized as safety measures.