Greener Traffic Management (In Theory)

Congress’ boosting in 2007 of fuel economy standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 should not be the only way the government can improve fuel economy, cut greenhouse gases and boost safety.  So contends Joseph D. Younger in an article “5 Ways to Turn Traffic Greener” published in AAA’s Car & Travel magazine.  The article suggests 5 ways that state, local and federal governments can do to make everyday driving environmentally friendlier.

1. Build Os (traffic circles) instead of Xs (intersections) Intersections controlled by stop signs or lights contribute to environmental damage because they force drivers to idle, which wastes gas.  Intersections also cause more pollution, since cars generate more emissions (including greenhouse gases) accelerating from a dead stop. On the other hand, traffic circles keep more cars moving, improve traffic flow and even reduce crashes.

A study by researchers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety of 10 intersections where traffic engineers opted for signal lights or stop signs instead of circles showed roundabouts at these places would have reduced delays by as much as 74 percent and saved 235,000 gallons of gas per year.  Separate research shows that roundabouts improve safety, too, generally reducing crashes by 37 percent overall and injury-related crashes by 75 percent.  In fact, New York mandates that engineers consider roundabouts as the preferred design option on state roads due for rebuilding.  This suggestion is meant to apply to new suburban and exurban developments and at outdated intersections, not for redesigning big-city intersections.

As someone who attended law school in Boston, while this suggestion may improve fuel efficiency, I’m not certain that traffic circles would improve safety.  From what I recall, Boston and its environs has a lot of traffic circles.  They seemed to be difficult to navigate at times due to the unpredictability of what direction other vehicles were going to go and hard to get into with vehicles whipping around the circle.  Boston drivers had a reputation as being on the wild side, and it was my impression that the traffic circles seemed to make it harder for Boston drivers to keep moving in a straight line.  The Manhattan grid actually seems saner.

2. End the four-way stop epidemic Cutting down on the number of stop signs-starting with four-ways – could improve both fuel economy and safety.  Four-way stops waste gas, contribute to pollution, and increase fender-benders.  “Many communities put in fourway stops simply for speed control,” says Mark Kulewicz, AAA New York’s director of traffic safety.  Kulewicz notes that curb extensions, painted medians and other traffic-calming devices-even measures as cheap and simple as permitting on-street parking-can reduce prevailing speeds in a neighborhood without wasting gas.

3. Raise traffic signals’ IQ “Intelligent” traffic signals can maximize traffic flow and reduce fuel consumption in city driving by 10 to 20 percent. White Plains, for example, has used such a system for years. Sensors in the roadway monitor traffic conditions and feed data to computers that control the city’s 130 traffic lights.  The system saves drivers an estimated 900,000 hours in delays and 875,000 gallons of gas annually. And the collision rate is now the lowest it has been since 1969-despite steadily increasing traffic volume.

Experts say 75 percent of the nation’s 330,000-plus traffic signals could operate more efficiently simply by adjusting their timing, coordinating adjacent signals and updating equipment. Such improvements don’t necessarily require large investments in high-tech systems. Often, local authorities can dramatically improve traffic flow simply by training personnel to monitor and correct lights that have slipped out of sync.

4. Burn calories, not fuel Drive-thrus sacrifice fuel consumption for convenience. Running your engine at idle for 60 seconds uses more gas than shutting it off and restarting it.  Towns such as San Luis Obispo, Calif., have already put a stop to drive-thrus, and more and more local governments are considering similar bans.

5. Slow, baby, slow Proponents claim that reviving the 55-mph national speed limit as imposed in 1973 to conserve fuel during the Arab oil embargo would save 280 million barrels of oil annually-about as much as we pump through the Alaska Pipeline-and reduce highway fatalities by 15 percent.  But Mr. Younger opines, correctly I believe, that Americans would neither support nor obey a 55-mph speed limit even with public support for a greener planet being what it is today.

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