The simple cause of city traffic with a nearly impossile solution

As an adult on the west coast of the US, I've been driving for many years. On the freeway, in the suburbs, in the city. While I'm lucky to live in a relatively low traffic major city, I've felt the experience of traffic frustration many times over. For the last couple of years though, I've been living in the heart of the city, and walking as my primary form of transportation.

I still own a car, but it sits in the garage nearly all of the time, with use about once per week. So, now I see the world a little differently. With my point of view as a pedestrian and my many years behind the wheel, I have led to a theory of what causes much (most?) of the traffic jams major cities experience.

Pedestrians. Pedestrians like me are why city streets experience traffic problems.

I can't tell you how many times I've sat in traffic where it took two, three, four, even five cycles of a traffic light before I got through an intersection. Only to be stuck at the next one. How many times have you turned a corner, often onto a major street, only to see a line of cars in front of you, barely moving?

Blame pedestrians.

See, nearly every traffic signal includes signals for pedestrians. They tend to indicate: walk, a warning not to walk, and then don't walk. Walk means go ahead and step off the curb and start crossing the street. Its often a green hand, green/white icon of a person, or event he word "walk." The next symbol is a countdown to the changing of the traffic flow. It is often indicated by a flashing red hand, or flashing red icon of a person. It means do not step off the curb, do not enter the intersection. If you are already crossing, you have a limited amount of time to get to the other side of the street. And of course, there is the 'don't walk at all' sign, indicating that you shouldn't be in the intersection at all, typically because of the oncoming traffic.

Unfortunately, pedestrians don't interpret the signs as I've described above, with three stages. My observations show that pedestrians look at those signs in a very binary way. Two stages. Cross, don't cross. The subtle difference between what is intended and how its interpreting is that much of the time, the signal is indicating not to step off the curb, but continue crossing if you already have. Yet, many pedestrians will continue to step off the curb as long as they think they can cross before the countdown is down, or in some cases they'll step off the curb as long as the countdown is still going, even if its down to 1 second before the signal changes.

I'm not trying to be a stick in the mud, or a grumpy old man, but there is a practical implication here. Those signs are set as such in order to allow cars, trucks, buses, and bikes to have an opportunity to turn right or left. As long as pedestrians are in the intersection or stepping off the curb, traffic cannot turn. When they can't turn, they do not move. When they don't move, traffic backs up. On and on and on it goes.

So, to ease traffic we need to clear the way for traffic to turn. To do that, we need pedestrians to follow the signs, and thus following the law. Easy, right?

Nearly impossible.

I think about this problem nearly every day that I walk to and from work, and I haven't landed on a reasonable solution. Hand out traffic tickets to pedestrians? Install physical barriers at crosswalks? Shame pedestrians for stepping off the curb when they shouldn't? Change the symbols on the signals? None of these options seem to have both the intended result while also being practical/realistic.

It appears that the solution employed by some cities, at select major intersections, is to place a traffic officer in the middle of the intersection with white gloves and a whistle. I always thought that they were there to direct vehicle traffic. Now I realize that they are there to direct pedestrian traffic. Stopping them from entering the intersection so that vehicles can make their turns, reducing traffic down behind them. It seems to work, but its not practical at the large scale. Traffic on the streets of downtown Portland is terrible during rush hour. The city would have to deploy dozens of officers, give days a week, to manage these intersections. Not a good use of police officer time, if you ask me.

So, do you agree? Are pedestrians a significant reason city streets experience traffic? Are there ways to solve this problem, which are both effective and practical? Let me know over on Facebook or Twitter, using the links below!

I wonder how a firm like IDEO would approach the solution?

Why I'm buying the newspaper again

This blog post is not what you think. I'm not buying the Oregonian or New York Times. I'm reading Street Roots, and here is why.

A Homeless Epidemic

If you live in Portland, or any major west-coast city, you've likely been hearing more and more about the homeless situation. More people, more camps, more panhandling, more more more. Its true, and while I'm not going to dig up the stats, I can tell you that as someone that has lived and/or worked in the city for the last 5 years, things have changed drastically and for the worse.

I've found myself with a mix of emotions over this topic. I've felt frustrated, I've felt sad, I've felt disgusted, I've felt helpless. I want to have empathy, but at times its hard. I struggle on occasion to be kind and caring, when the easy thing to do is to simply wish the problem would go away...away from my neighborhood, away from me.

So in an effort to do what isn't so easy, to act with compassion and care, I attended an open house put on by a few local non-profits and listened. Listening turned to learning and today I am better equipped to act with compassion and care, although it will still be hard.

The Epidemic is Not New

One of the key things I learned is that this epidemic is not new, its not a 2015 or 2016 phenomenon. Its been building and growing for decades, specifically when the United States federal government stopped funding mental hospitals and other social services aimed at those that need a little help. Ending the practice of putting the mentally ill into institutionalized facilities was probably a good idea. Doing it without any other safety-net, or any option for that matter, was a bad idea. An even worse idea was what I understand to be a general pull back from funding programs for the ill, impoverished, and the incapable. The decisions of the 1970's and 1980's are now resulting in major issues, like extreme homelessness in on of the wealthiest countries on earth.

In 2016, the problem is worse in many cities. Places like San Francisco and Portland having booming economies, thanks in part to the technology industry. With a boom comes higher salaries, and with higher salaries comes higher rent. Don't read that as economic cause & effect, its more complex than that, but lets move on with my statement as relative fact.

When rents go up for highly paid tech workers, you probably say that there couldn't be any impact on lower income earners, but thats just not true. As rents at the high end go up, rents in the middle market will likely climb to fill the gap, and then rents at the low end will climb to fill the new gap left by the middle. Additionally, the business value of apartments rises as rents (business income) rise, and the value of the land that dwellings live on goes to to match. We live in a beautiful, free and market based economy, but it has its drawbacks. Rising rents, even for the folks who don't have rising incomes in booming industries, become a reality.

Imagine you are a low income individual and your pay $500 a month for rent. Now its $650. A high paid tech worker says "so what" but that $150 makes all the difference in the world to others. That $150 a month increase could literally lead to homelessness. And as I understand, it not only could, it is.

Enter Street Roots

What does all this have to do with newspapers? I'm making a very small contribution now, which I feel very good about, thanks to a newspaper.

Street Roots is a newspaper, created by journalists and industry experts, that supports the homeless community in Portland. One of the ways they support the community is by offering an opportunity for people living on the street to earn an income, rather than beg for it. I learned about Street Roots when it's Executive Director and Publisher, Israel Bayer, spoke at the above mentioned community event on the homeless issue in Portland. I was blown away not only by the concept of Street Roots, but by the knowledge Israel dropped on the audience and what I believe is his unique opportunity to do something about the issues our city faces.

Speaking of the concept around Street Roots, here is the ore of it: People in need buy the newspaper for $0.25 and sell them for $1.00. They sell outside of businesses, where they might otherwise sit and beg if it weren't for Street Roots. Now they provide a service, a product, a fair trade, action.

I LOVE this idea! It offers dignity in what is a community we few opportunities for self-worth. Instead of simply asking for a handout, the individuals that sell Street Roots offer my something I crave. News, information, entertainment, and an honorable way to give back to those in my community with need.

For Me as Much as for Them

I feel a bit selfish, because of all the things I like about Street Roots, how it makes me feel is one of the strongest. I feel great about contributing a (very) small amount of money each week. I like that I am supporting someone that is motivated to earn a dollar instead of beg for a dollar. I like to think its win/win, but I fear that I get more out of it than they do.

Thats probably okay, because Street Roots has gotten me off the sidelines. I'm doing something now, verse nothing. I'm doing it in a way that offers dignity and respect, and I find myself less conflicted in my heart or in my mind.

Join Me in Reading the Newspaper

So in this world of digital content, short attention spans, 24 hour news, and our comfortable tech industry salaries, I ask you to join me in buying the newspaper. Next time you see someone on the street selling Street Roots, buy a copy. Do so and know that you are helping a motivated and humble human being who is someones son/daughter/father/mother/brother/sister/etc.

Buy the paper and see how you feel. I bet you'll feel good about what you are contributing to the community. I also bet you'll learn something new and interesting while reading the paper. You'll be entertained, you'll know more about your community, and you'll be glad you read the paper.