THE BLOG

Killing the Lights: The Emptiest Parts of the City No Longer Need Traffic Signals

12/19/2013 03:33 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2014

Scattered throughout various locations throughout the City of Detroit, one is likely to run into this sign.

2013-12-19-DSCF1658001.JPG

It may be unusual in almost any other urban area, but not the Motor City. In due time, the city could end up removing this traffic light at the intersection of Peterboro Street and Second Avenue altogether. It stands just a little over a mile from Campus Martius Park. But why would the Department of Public Works consider removing a traffic light in an area so close to highest concentration of jobs and workers?

It's not rocket science. This intersection no longer endures the volume of traffic to justify a stoplight. Or, at least, the City is pretty sure it doesn't. Curbed Detroit featured an article on this assessment much earlier in the year. In many regards, it's not too surprising, given the hierarchical importance of these two streets. Second Avenue would most likely qualify as a collector, an intermediate street that does not provide the length or support the volume of vehicles that a more prominent arterial would (such as Woodward Avenue). Meanwhile, Peterboro Street is little more than a local road, just four blocks in length and not intended to handle any major traffic beyond access to residential quarters. The Google Map below better demonstrates this relationship.

2013-12-19-casspeterboromap.jpg

Detroiters know that Second Avenue is hardly a street on par with Woodward. And Peterboro, the cross street, is only four blocks long. Considering the built environment in the area today, its hard to conceive of a time when the density of commerce and vehicles was ever enough to warrant a stoplight here. Here's a clearer view of the intersection looking northward down Second.

2013-12-19-DSCF1659001.JPG

One could make excuses for the general feeling of emptiness, considering that these pictures come from a late Saturday afternoon. But judging from the absence of large buildings flanking either side of Second Avenue, is there any reason to believe these lanes (all one-way northbound) are ever congested?

Historically, one of Americans' favorite gripes about their respective cities is the snarling traffic problem, indicative of streets that no longer have the capacity to handle the vehicles that pass through. However, even the pro-car stalwarts (and the Motor City has more than its share) would have to argue that Detroit's roads suffer the opposite capacity issue. Simply put, these streets don't handle nearly the magnitude of traffic for which their designers originally anticipated. Both Michigan DOT and Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) offer reports on Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT) counts, confirming the low numbers.

And it gets worse. Compare this with an intersection between a collector and an arterial a quarter-mile closer to downtown, for example:

2013-12-19-DSCF1662001.JPG

This photo looks eastward on Temple Street at the point where Second Avenue terminates, visible on the left, with the mammoth Masonic Temple immediately behind it. Just in the distance are two more intersections with stoplights. The purple circles in the map below indicate the locations of stoplights on Temple.

2013-12-19-cassparktemplemapedited001.jpg

It amounts to one of the most saturated traffic light schemes I've seen in any major city center. Because the two segments of Second Avenue are non-contiguous, they cannot share a stoplight. However, in this instance, not only is the traffic volume insufficiently heavy to demand stoplights, but the flow of the traffic further weakens the need. Standing between the two intersections (represented by the purple circles to the left and center on the map) and looking eastward --

2013-12-19-DSCF1665001.JPG

-- this stoplight regulates traffic on a segment of Second Avenue that is just one block long and only one-way northbound. Thus, the light exists only for vehicles leaving Second Avenue onto Temple Street; cars on Temple can't do anything. Why isn't a stop sign sufficient?

The other intersection (the farthest purple circle on the left) is even more unnecessary.

2013-12-19-DSCF1667001.JPG

The stoplight directs traffic between Temple and Second, but since Second is a one-way northbound street, this stoplight exists only for vehicles leaving Temple to turn onto Second; no cars can legally travel the other direction. Westbound cars on Temple turning right onto Second wouldn't need traffic regulation under any circumstances. The stoplight only regulates cars turning left -- no other purpose. If these were high-traffic streets, some other form of management might be useful. But remember what Second Avenue looks like:

2013-12-19-DSCF1672001.JPG

Not just a yawning chasm of unused pavement, but a one-way yawning chasm.

I will concede that the Masonic Temple can bring reasonable crowds when a show or indoor festival is in town.

2013-12-19-DSCF1669001.JPG

But in a city with numerous magnificent theaters, it doesn't really dominate the scene. It rarely hosts an event more than three nights a week, and while these can get crowded, does a street really need stoplights for just a few hours here and there? After all, whether urban, suburban, or rural, one typically expects at least a little bit of traffic bottlenecking when a major show lets out.

I'm hardly an advocate for high-speed traffic flow as an easy remedy, especially in urban settings where numerous pedestrians could be present. But the conditions for motorists along this stretch of Temple Street are almost comparable to waiting in line for a ride at Disneyworld. The lights aren't timed to expedite flow, so it is common for a car to stop at all three intersections represented by the purple circles. Worst of all: these lights are not under any study for removal... yet.

This predicament may seem minor in a city that has lost over two-thirds of its population since its 1950 peak, but it is an inevitable consequence. The lower east side of Detroit, home to some neighborhoods that have lost 90 percent of the population from the 1950 peak, has no decommissioned stoplights planned, although the condition of superfluous stoplights is ubiquitous on that side of town.

As a result, the fact that the Department of Public Works' Traffic Engineering Division is assessing the possibility of removing traffic lights seems like lemonade out of lemons. Not only is it good for people getting around by car in the Motor City, who won't suffer the inefficiency of stopping at lights that no longer need to exist -- a Pareto optimality under just about any consideration. The win-win resolution prescribed here may seem out of touch with the broader concerns of job loss and concentrated poverty, but any bankrupt city that needs to divest of some of its most fulsome assets (and their associated operational costs) will inevitably have to confront the phenomenon of traffic management in an environment that no longer handles much traffic. Even if the City sells its tri-color portfolio to fast-growing metros that need them, it will amount to a drop in the bucket when it comes to debt reduction. But this strategy is both relatively easy to implement and free of the controversy one might expect from, say, stripping the Detroit Institute of Art of its collection. One final wish: that the Department figured away that a "study for removal" doesn't cost more than the value of the intersection's stoplights themselves.

This article originally appeared in the author's personal blog, American Dirt. All photos taken by the author.