The driver of a Chevy Equinox blocks the crosswalk at North Avenue and Oakley Boulevard in Wicker Park. If the only traffic signal was on the near side of the intersection, she wouldn’t drive into the intersection as she wouldn’t be able to see when the signal turned green. But with far side signals, she can still see the light change.
It took me a while to see what was happening. I think I first noticed that people driving their automobiles were never blocking crosswalks while waiting at a red light. And people on bikes were doing a good job at respecting the crosswalk boundaries, too. I next realized I was doing it, too: waiting behind the crosswalk. I’d do this at intersections with hundreds of pedestrians and intersections with none. I then became aware of where the bike signal was: at the edge of the intersection, before you entered the intersection. And there wasn’t one on the other side.
Welcome to traffic in Germany, where traffic signals are mostly installed on the near side of intersections and rarely on the far side. The effect is simple but pleasant and profound: people stop at the stop bar, before the crosswalk. If you didn’t stop there, you wouldn’t see the signal and you wouldn’t know when it turns green. The near side signal also means fewer signal heads to install. Where in Chicago, a lot intersections have 3-5 signal heads, many German intersections I cruised through had 2. The intersection of Milwaukee Avenue and California Avenue has 3 signal heads for each direction, although there is only one lane in each direction.
This photo shows the effect of near side signal heads. It’s labeled to show where the signals are, and to whom they are directed. The Google Street View below gives you another view of this intersection in Munich, Germany.
View Nymphenburger Straße and Dachauer Straße in a larger map. This Google Street View is from the point of view of the driver of the silver BMW station wagon in the above photo.
This intersection, of Nymphenburger Straße (“stross-uh”) and Dachauer Straße, has cycle tracks with bike lane crossings between the intersection and the crosswalk. Near side signals keep automobiles out of both crossings, then. Eastbound Nymphenburger Straße has three lanes, one of which is for left turns. It has 4 signal heads, all on the near side. Two signal heads are for left turns: one is low, for drivers waiting at the stop bar, and one is high for approaching drivers. Two signal heads are for through movements and right turns: again, one is low, and one is high.
This wasn’t a tool mentioned in the pedestrian plan, and I’ve not heard of it being a feature anywhere in the United States, but I’d love to experiment with removing far side signals and using only near side lights at intersections. Pedestrians would have a much easier time crossing the street.
N.B. Attorney Brendan Kevenides, a sponsor of Grid Chicago, has requested that we discuss in the future features of transportation we experienced in Europe that we disliked. I’ll get right on that as soon as I can figure out what they were. I’m kidding, I have a few in mind.