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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Red lights and roadblocks
September 17, 2010 - 5:15pm

I was checking a book out of Greenback's library this morning, and happened to get in line behind a student who was checking out a tome (25 pounds, minimum!) titled Highway and Traffic Engineering. As titles go, that's one I like. It highlights the relationship between infrastructure (highways) and behavior (traffic).

I took this as an omen, in that I'd been spitting and fuming on my way to campus, today. Backboro has a lot of traffic signals, and I want to be able to take it as a matter of faith that there's some sort of logic to the way they're timed and configured -- clearly not a system that facilitates traffic on major arteries, nor even necessarily a set of patterns each of which addresses multiple neighboring intersections, but at least some logic to the timing and settings of each individual traffic control. I want to, but I just can't.

First, there's the "right turn arrow" thing. You're approaching a "T" intersection, such that you could go straight ahead or you could turn right. The light is red, but there's also a green arrow which allows you to turn right without stopping. Then, as you approach the intersection, the green arrow turns amber. Then the amber arrow goes out and you're left with nothing but the full red. Then -- a fraction of a second later -- the red light turns green. WHAT, pray tell, is the purpose of slowing and (arguably) stopping the right-turning traffic for a split second, if all you're going to do is send them on their way??

Then, there's the "no right turn arrow" thing. You're approaching the same "T" intersection, from the same orientation. The light is red from your direction, and there's a "no right turn on red sign". There's an arrow pointing right, but it's dark. Traffic, traveling the same direction as you, is waiting for the light. Traffic, entering from your right, is similarly stopped -- they also have a red. There's no traffic at all coming the opposite way from you. Sensor plates are in the road, yet everyone in sight is sitting and waiting for nobody in particular.

Which brings me to the "waiting for nobody" thing. Backboro is a northeastern city, and our population hasn't grown for years. In fact, at some time in the past, the city doubtless was home to more folks than live here now. But I'd be willing to bet money that at no time in the past were there enough people living in Backboro to generate enough traffic on secondary streets as should be required to justify the chronological length of some of the red lights on major arteries. Never. Not a chance. Didn't happen.

Now, on a philosophical level, I can make the case that a screwed-up traffic control system provides a disincentive to drive. And getting people out of their cars is one of the things I like best. But when the public transit system is grossly inadequate (not to mention, subject to the same misbegotten traffic control system as autos are), getting out of your car isn't much of a possibility. As a result, all the stopping and waiting produces is emissions -- cars idling at a stoplight get the worst fuel mileage possible.

Not that literal stoplights are the worst kind. Sometimes, figurative (by which I mean political) stoplights are worse.

Apparently the Texas attorney general is now an arbiter of scientific veracity. Meanwhile, every industrial lobbying group in sight is trying to tell the EPA to get out of Dodge . . . and GM . . . and Ford . . . and pretty much everywhere else. They claim not to dispute the science, just the regulatory scheme designed to address it. All they're asking for is a little delay. Like a decade. Or two.

The claim, in each case, is that the economy will suffer irreparable harm. What they mean, of course, is that the old economy -- the players who dominated the field in the 19th and early-to-middle-20th centuries and are still the big kids on the block -- might not continue to dominate.

But, like the larger population that once was Backboro's, those times are gone. Those times, and those behaviors, and those players and their lobbyists are what got us into this mess. The economy needs to turn off of that road. In the right direction. If the verdammte traffic light just weren't red.



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