The optimal position of stoplights

December 4, 2013 at 6:24 pm

Have you ever watched some drivers while they navigate busy rush hour traffic? I saw a woman tonight screaming (alone) in her car as she tried to turn left at an intersection downtown. I see it often and it makes me wonder why people still cling so desperately to the idea of driving through the city. We’re out of room for more roads for cars. The best we can do now is make room for more efficient modes of transportation that fit more people into already constrained space. It’s the only way we’ll grow as a city.

Just a thought.

The real reason I wrote this post is to point out this job done at Kinzie and Canal, where there is a new stoplight (previously an all-way stop) which is completely invisible to eastbound Kinzie traffic:

Excuse the bad image, I need a new iPhone.

As you can see (I hope) in the blurry, dark image above, I am stopped before the stop bar. Do you see a stoplight?

That’s the problem: The stoplight is not visible at the stop bar. You could rely on the pedestrian signal, but you shouldn’t.

From further back you can see that the stoplight is actually positioned above the stop bar, unlike the typical North American configuration where it is positioned at the opposite end of the intersection.

And here’s an aerial diagram:

In orange, the current configuration of stoplights. In yellow is where the one stoplight (for eastbound Kinzie traffic) should be.

In orange, the current configuration of stoplights. In yellow is where the one stoplight (for eastbound Kinzie traffic) should be.

I actually prefer when the stoplight is positioned above where cars should be stopped, as is common in Europe, because it forces drivers to stay behind the stop line (and thus out of the crosswalk), or else they wouldn’t be able to see the light. The thing is that with this configuration, there is a light positioned above (maybe 12′ above ground), as well as one at eye-level for drivers and people on bikes:


View Larger Map

If the driver in the car above were stopped in the crosswalk, they’d be unable to know if their light were green or not. Also, take a look at that narrow bike lane. Europe isn’t perfect.

I don’t know what was going on at Kinzie and Canal, but if anything I wish they’d have just closed off Canal a block south and called it a day. Traffic on Kinzie wouldn’t have to stop, pedestrians wouldn’t be cut off by drivers waiting (in the crosswalk) to turn, and an expensive and improperly-installed traffic light wouldn’t need to exist. Since it does exist, it needs to be fixed. It could be the chance for CDOT to install a “bike stoplight” like the ones in Amsterdam:

The small bike lights are designed for cyclists to see.

The small bike lights are designed for cyclists to see.

I would prefer for all bike lights to be like this instead of the towering ones on Dearborn, which I truly believe confuse drivers, and are not easily viewed in the summer when some trees block them. I also simply believe that looking up at the light so high up creates the same problem as it does for drivers: it forces your gaze upwards when what is important (pedestrians and other things in the bike path) is at our “natural head pitch”, about 5-10º downward.

Image: Chicago Reader/Andrea Bauer.

They’d be much better placed at eye-level for people on bikes so that they’re basically only viewable by people on bikes, and not drivers. That’s the optimal position.

UPDATE: I went back on December 18 during the morning to get a better look. Below are the photos:

Looking east on Kinzie.

Looking south, there are 3 (three!) signals for drivers exiting the development north of Kinzie.

Four signals, including a left-turn signal, looking west on Kinzie.