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How designing safer roads led to some very dangerous roads in Phoenix, Arizona


I love Phoenix, but you gotta admit that the roads are very often deadly. I haven't checked recently, but Phoenix had always lead the country in red-light running. And it's really true - I see cars whizz through red lights all of the time.

But it was definitely along the road (literally) to good intentions that all of this happened. Phoenix has some of the widest, most clearly-marked, most visible streets of any city. I've lived there long enough to know that they're well-kept up, and of course they're flat and mostly without any blind curves. The visibility is so good that you can easily see the traffic lights a mile ahead of you, if not farther (depending on how sharp your eyes are).

What all of this safe engineering had led to is some very high-speed travel. Although most of the main streets of Phoenix are nominally 40 miles per hour as the speed limit, they're mostly traveled well beyond that. In fact, if you go 40 miles per hour you'll probably annoy most people who want to pass! And those speeds are fine on highways, but in places where traffic stops and starts it's deadly.

I'm not blaming anyone here. I certainly don't blame someone who is driving a heavy vehicle that takes a long time to slow down. And Phoenix has always had a lot of big vehicles, and even more now. These vehicles were never meant to "stop on a dime", they simply can't. It just has to do with momentum. And most people were taught that when they saw a yellow light to "gun it", rather than slow down, which means that often vehicles are hitting intersections at very high speeds.

One solution that I see, sadly enough, is something called "traffic calming", which simply means putting obstacles in the way in an attempt to slow traffic. And while it seems like a good idea, it's like putting a roller skate on the stairs for people who are trying to travel quickly around Phoenix. It's an annoyance, and doesn't seem to be much more than that. After the traffic calming, most traffic speeds up even faster to make up for lost time.

If all of this hasn't convinced you to avoid the mean streets of Phoenix, let me tell you about "suicide lanes". Believe it or not, there are center lanes that allow traffic to travel in either direction. They were invented to allow cars to turn without backing up traffic, but they have earned their name by how they're used. On any given day you'll see people driving towards each other, usually looking back over their shoulder, trying to merge with the high speed traffic. Not easy to do!

Clear visibility, wide and well-kept up streets don't seem to be a recipe for disaster, but it's turned out that way.  Be careful out there!

Image at the top of this post: A traffic light in Phoenix, Arizona. When it turns green, don't be the first person to go.

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