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Crossing is safer without the light

The traffic lights have been removed at the intersection of Weybosset, Broad, Empire, and Chestnut Streets.
Traffic lights at the intersection of Weybosset, Broad, Empire, and Chestnut Streets on Weybosset Hill have been removed.

As part of the Downtown Circulator Project, the traffic light at the intersection of Weybosset, Broad, Empire, and Chestnut Streets (Weybosset Hill for short) have been removed. The roads will be rebuilt (with Weybosset and Empire both becoming two-way) and new lights will be installed, probably sometime this fall. Curiously, the intersection, which I walk through multiple times a day, has become much better without the lights.

Weybosset Hill intersection from the air.
Weybosset Hill intersection from the air, image from Google Maps

Due to several factors; the intersection being a two-way meeting three one-ways, the overly wide turning radius on the corners, Rhode Islanders liberal use of right and left on red (stopping first being optional), and more, this intersection has been a nightmare for pedestrians. There are no walk lights and the geometry means there is never a point in the light cycle where traffic does not have a green light allowing them to move through.

As a pedestrian, you basically had to take a lane and edge your way into traffic until someone stopped in order to cross.

Now with the lights gone and being replaced by stop signs, the intersection has become civilized with traffic (auto, pedestrian, and bike) taking turns to get through the intersection, with no observable impact on the flow of traffic, except to make it safer and more convenient for pedestrians.

Where before, drivers focused on the light, edging their way into the intersection until it turned green, or plowing through a right on red with near reckless abandon, motorists now have to be aware of their surroundings. They stop at the stop sign and look, then proceed when they see it is clear. Where before driver behavior was controlled by the directions given to motorists by the light, now their surroundings are impacting how and when drivers proceed.

Motorists are making eye contact with each other and pedestrians and everyone is deciding together the best way to navigate the intersection. And, all signs show that this arrangement works. Pedestrians who used to pile on the curb and cower, until they could dart through a break in traffic are now flowing uninterrupted across the street. Cars on Broad which would before back up a red light, when Empire often had no traffic for which they needed to wait, can now move smoothly after a short stop.

When this intersection rebuild is done, the geometry will be different, Empire and Weybosset will both be two-way, so perhaps the removal of the lights won’t work as well then, but we should certainly look around the city and see where removing lights can actually improve traffic flow and safety (not to mention the cost savings of not having to maintain a traffic light).

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8 Responses to Crossing is safer without the light

  1. Andy July 21, 2011 at 10:57 am #

    May I request a roundabout for both junctions in Olneyville Square and another one at Emmet Square, Downtown?

  2. Jason July 21, 2011 at 11:00 am #

    I also walk through here almost every day and have had the same experience.

  3. sara July 21, 2011 at 11:35 am #

    I’m glad it’s safer! I drove through the other day and was a little weirded out by no lights…not hailing from the NE, I have yet to see a full-on stop at a stop sign out here, and that’s always made me nervous, as a biker, jogger, and motorist. Maybe the city could rake in some $$ for these sorts of vehicular no-no’s instead of raising taxes and ruining RIPTAs routes?

  4. Coryndon July 21, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    Can you guys report back on this in a few weeks? I am interested to see if is due to a new configuration and if it keeps on working after it becomes familiar to the drivers.

  5. Jef Nickerson July 21, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

    Sara, it is certainly true that almost no one comes to a complete stops unless something is physically blocking them, but this turns out to be better than before when people went when the light was green, even if there was something in front of them.

    I think there is a mentality that it is a temporary stop sign, so you don’t actually really have to stop (even less so than you would stop at any other stop sign).

  6. Andy July 27, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    I would also like to nominate Westminster and Cranston Street, Winter and Fricker Street intersection for a roundabout, please.

  7. Peter VE August 5, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    It’s a small step to reclaiming the priority of people over cars in the city . Read about a far more complete rethinking of the interactions between people bikes & cars in a small city in the Netherlands.

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