Concrete Jungle

Naked Streets

Minneapolis is home to the most poorly timed traffic light in the universe. It controls the intersection of 42nd Street South, Hiawatha Avenue, and my beloved light rail line.

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Like its cousins on 35th, 38th, and 46th, the light’s primitive timing mechanism is inadequate to the task of coordinating the competing needs of a six-lane regional artery, a two-lane residential street, and a train that does not stop between the 38th and 46th Street stations. It can routinely take more than twenty minutes to cross Hiawatha, during which time at least one train will pass and the cars on Hiawatha will get at least two green lights. The only consolation is this mural painted on a grain elevator near the intersection.

The psychologist David Maister has developed eight propositions concerning the psychology of waiting:

1. Occupied Time Feels Shorter Than Unoccupied Time.

2. People Want to Get Started.

3. Anxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer.

4. Uncertain Waits Are Longer than Known, Finite Waits.

5. Unexplained Waits Are Longer than Explained Waits.

6. Unfair Waits Are Longer than Equitable Waits.

7. The More Valuable the Service, the Longer the Customer Will Wait.

8. Solo Waits Feel Longer than Group Waits.

As Tom Vanderbilt points out in his book, Traffic, a typical car trip will illustrate many Maister propositions. Sitting in a mysterious traffic jam, getting stuck behind a bus with frequent stops, waiting for another car to make a left turn: all these situations are likely to provoke some combination of the above propositions, particularly 1, 4, 5, and 6. But there are few traffic situations that illustrate all eight at once. For me, crossing Hiawatha on 42nd Street often went eight-for-eight.

Then I read on The Atlantic’Cities blog that Minneapolis’s traffic grid dates from 1974 and has never been overhauled. Proposition 5 no longer applies, and soon many of the others may not either. The city is spending $5 million to improve its grid. Among the upgrades is TACTICS, a Siemens operating system that will synchronize all 800 traffic signals (which currently keep 800 individual times) and adjust their cycles by fractions of seconds on the fly. The Atlantic says TACTICS is especially useful for coordinating traffic lights with mass transit, and it estimates that, citywide, average travel times will be reduced 12%.

When Liz and I moved from south Minneapolis to Stevens Square last August, I cut my commute from over four miles to just one: a straight shot down 3rd Ave. South. But as I mentioned in a previous post, I gave up a stress-melting cruise down an unobstructed bike path for a start/stop game of Frogger through the heart of downtown. The strange thing about my commute is that it’s not the traffic that bothers me most, it’s the traffic lights. I cross at least 14 lights over the course of my mile-long commute, 16 if I detour over to 2nd Ave, where the lights are timed less atrociously. It’s not uncommon for me to hit a red at every intersection.

I am generally an even-tempered person. I devote significant amounts of mental energy to rationalizing away any emotion I feel is negative or unproductive. But I have never brought my bike to a halt at a red light without feeling a mild spasm of self-righteous anger at the implacably inconvenient universe. I routinely pull short at the very last minute, so I end up in the center of the crosswalk, blocking pedestrians and leaving just an inch or so of clearance between my front wheel and passing cars.

Momentum is the most important force in cycling. But, like the sea, she is a harsh mistress. It’s easy to diagnose a case of Manic Momentia: a cyclist, usually young and helmetless, flies through a red light without slowing, or brakes just long enough to decide an oncoming car will see her and let her get by. The cure for the disorder is straightforward: consider the odds. I try to keep in mind at all times that I am a commuter. If I routinely make choices with even a one in 100 chance of being hit, that means I’ll be hit about three times a year.

But impulse control is easier described than applied, especially in traffic. There is a very particular emotion produced by waiting three minutes for the light to change, only to look down the block and see the next light go yellow. Its intensity builds with repetition, eventually driving even the best of us to make bad decisions. I run more reds than I should, though never before I at least slow and look. But the closest I’ve come to being hit has happened when I do stop and wait for the red to turn green. The moment it changes, a Pavlovian instinct tells me to push off, and I have to remind myself to look both ways first: Repetitive Red Light syndrome affects drivers even more than bikers. There’s an excellent chance at least one car will blow right through the red seconds after it has changed. And when they do, I turn my head to watch them. They avoid eye contact, fixated on the grim scene ahead: cars already bunching at the next red light.

The Twin Cities have some of the worst commuter delay times in the country. Most of the metro population lives in suburbs and exurbs that are almost completely dependent on highways. At rush hour, cars clog the highways and flood the downtown grid. Parking ramps are more numerous than high-rise offices. When I ride down 2nd Ave in the evening, I pass at least two cops whose sole job is to stand in the middle of certain blocks to stop traffic and let cars out of parking ramps.

A cop is also always stationed at the intersection of 2nd and 11th. These cops wear gloves with reflective green arrows on the back of their hands and orange stop signals on their palms. They have very loud whistles. The officers rotate every few days. For most, their priority is simply to manage the predictable symptoms of Repetitive Red Light Syndrome and keep drivers from blocking the box. But some like to play god. Eleventh has heavier traffic, so they beckon cars on that street to keep going through the red light, giving the 2nd-Avers the stop-sign palm on our own green. Proposition 6.

Red light runners could kill me, but it’s the boxblockers who drive me nuts. Maybe it’s because the light runners flee the scene, while the blockers, by definition, just sit; their selfishness turned to helplessness. It’s common to see three or four cars in an intersection after the light changes, the drivers staring straight ahead to avoid the eyes of their fellow commuters, whose rightful progress they have halted. One of my personal Minneapolis mysteries is why no one honks at them. Is it a triumph of empathy, a rational cost-benefit analysis, or just apathetic despair?

The difference between apathy and agency is the difference between cycling and driving. A car is an instrument of freedom that is constantly becoming a cage. A bike is always a bike. While the driver sits helpless, the cyclist takes action. His box is never blocked. He is generally unconstrained by fear of a police ticket (at least in Minneapolis). He risks only his life.

When we get into a car, we become one component of a complex mechanized system. We choose our destination, but along the route we are essentially stewards of the car, ensuring that it obeys the rules that allow the system to efficiently function. Just as modern airplanes now fly themselves, the evolution of the car is toward increased automation. The modern bicycle, however, has barely changed since the 1880s, when the “safety bicycle” with a geared drivetrain displaced high-wheeled “ordinaries.” When driving, I sit in an extraordinarily safe steel box reacting primarily to the reasonable and necessary expectation that other drivers will predictably respond to the same internal dials and external signals I respond to. On my bike I am in the wind with two wheels and a few metal tubes between my legs, bound not by inflexible rules but a constant stream of physical sensation and intuitive judgment.

Vanderbilt reports on one study that shows drivers are more likely to hit a cyclist who is correctly signaling a turn than one who is looking towards the turn without signaling. The problem seemed to be that they couldn’t look at a cyclist without seeing a human being. And when we see a human, unlike when we see a car, we instinctively try to understand far more about them than what direction they are turning. We look for eye contact, intention, recognition. The tragedy of driving is that, in exchange for the idea of freedom, we sacrifice connection. This longing can never be consummated but can cause destruction, injury, and death.

The last time I enjoyed driving a car was the last time I drove in a place that had no enforceable traffic laws. Three years ago Liz and I fell in love while working for the summer on Dominica: a small island in the West Indies that is so mountainous and densely forested, the airport is located two hours from the capital, at the only the spot on the entire island with enough flat land for a runway. Once a week, I drove from the Carib Indian Territory where we lived to Roseau, the small capital city: a 25-mile journey that took two hours. The tarmac roads on Dominica were exactly the width of two average-sized vehicles, so if a truck was coming, a car had to pull off and let it pass. This was often difficult because one side of the road tended to be a cliff and the other a mountainside. We were instructed by our bosses to honk at every blind turn, so I drove with one hand and used the other to steadily mash the horn. The honking alerted other drivers, goats and dogs that liked to lie on the tarmac, and children who set up pick-up cricket pitches in the middle of the street.

I am a nervous driver, but I learned to love driving in Dominica. It required an intensity of concentration that bordered on rapture. The more I learned to trust my reflexes and my judgment, the less often I honked. There were no street signs or signals (except a few warning of falling rocks) and I never looked at my speedometer or any other gauge. I was constantly interacting with the road’s contours, grade, upcoming turns, ditches, potholes, fallen rocks, cricket players, basking dogs, men with machetes in their hands and bunches of banana on their heads, and of course other vehicles, usually buses or pick-ups driven by aggressive young men who would rather die in a head-on collision than be emasculated by yielding to a white person. It was the adrenal thrill of weaving through traffic on my bike, but with tropical fruit, waterfalls, black sand beaches, ocean vistas, and the heady roar of combustion.

In Dominica people drove the way cyclists ride, not following orders, but dynamically interacting with the world. I’m thrilled that Minneapolis is spending millions to upgrade its lights, but I wonder whether they’d be better off just getting rid of them. Some European towns are creating “naked streets” by removing their traffic signals. The theory is that eliminating prescriptive rules creates a culture of “mild anxiety” in which drivers make better decisions because they don’t just assume everyone else will behave predictably. Fatalities have fallen at the intersections where lights were taken out.

It’s exciting to think that Repetitive Red Light Syndrome could be eradicated in my lifetime, but I don’t think it will take the tragedy out of driving. Navigating a naked streets makes a driver feel alive. But it’s connecting with others that makes us feel human. We can strip down our streets, but until we’re willing to get naked ourselves, we’ll still be traffic.

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.