Phoenix reverse lanes, stoplights and assorted traffic annoyances

Today while I was driving to work, I saw my first “reverse lanes” accident in more than a dozen years of living in the Phoenix metro area.

From 6 to 9 a.m., the center lanes of two major streets in downtown Phoenix become one-way southbound lanes, in hopes of accommodating more drivers headed downtown to work. (From 4 to 6 p.m., those same lanes become one-way northbound, to accommodate those same drivers who are headed home.) During those hours, drivers aren’t allowed to make left-hand turns at major stoplights … but they can make a left anywhere else between them. (Compounding the problem, drivers going in the opposite direction suddenly need to use the left lane as their “turn lane.”)

I’m surprised I haven’t seen an accident before now. Logically, it’s not surprising: For eight years I lived and worked in the East Valley, and only really came in to Phoenix on weekends or at night, when those reverse lanes weren’t in effect. But I knew about them, mostly because people had told me how idiotic they were. “When you go in for your driver’s test, they’ll ask you: ‘Are you familiar with the reverse lanes in central Phoenix?’ and just say yes,” they said.

But at least twice a week, I see the close calls — someone who didn’t get the memo stopped in the “turn lane” hoping to make a left at a light, while around him traffic grinds to an angry, honking halt.  I never use the reverse lanes, for that reason — what’s supposed to be faster actually ends up slowing you down. ( find that more frustrating than taking side streets with stop signs — it’s like when traffic is crawling on a freeway, all I can think is, “This is designed to help me drive faster! Who is screwing this up?”

The highway outside Honolulu has a moveable center barrier — in the mornings it’s pushed to one side to let commuters in, and by evening rush, a machine sort of like a locomotive cowpusher has run along the shoulder and nudged the barrier over to the other side, to give the homeward bound a little more breathing room.

Phoenix has wee little signs posted. With so much text that people driving 40+ mph (who actually goes 35 on a five-lane street?) are like, “What did that say? 6-9 one-way south, 4-6 do not use, all else no left what?”

I’m not opposed to the concept of the reverse lanes. They’re just poorly executed and enforced. You want a reverse lane? Put up frequent, illuminated signs that illustrate the principle, like the ones at the entries to tunnels. How easy is this: Red X means “stay out,” green arrow means “go.”

And no left turns, anywhere, when they’re in place. The city is built on a grid of parallel lines: If you need to get somewhere between Central and Seventh during the panic hours, take Central and turn toward Seventh, instead of vice versa.

I feel like the city of Phoenix half-asses most of its traffic ideas: They’ve installed new pedestrian-triggered crosswalks, which stay red for a while (car, stop!), then move to a flashing red (proceed, with caution) before turning off. The sign near the lights only tells people to stop, and nothing about the flashing red. As this article mentions, drivers who associate flashing red lights with “holy crap, a train is coming!” will probably stay frozen until the flashing stops. (As the city hopes they do, at the flashing red lights where drivers and light rail trainers intersect.) I discovered the whole stop-then-go-when-safe process in a blurb in my water bill. (Who reads everything in their water bill, besides bored editors?) Nobody understands the flashing red, so the drivers idle through the entire cycle until the light goes dark. Stoplight instruction FAIL.

At a time when more people are driving faster, you’d think the city would be trying to make streets also be safer. Instead, it’s instituting confusing laws, badly executed stoplights, and even lane changes. (Don’t get me started on the 50-yard double lanes at intersections on 12th Street and 15th Avenue, which only lead to cars racing for position, and slamming on their brakes to let the impatient drivers merge in. )

Here’s what bothered me about today’s accident: It didn’t involve just the driver who was making a damn left-hand turn and the driver who plowed into the car in front of him. There was a third car, literally sandwiched between them — a driver who probably had stopped behind the first car, as you’re supposed to, and was seething quietly, waiting for nutjob to make their left, when the driver in back slammed into her full-speed, propelling her right into the car in front of her.  The front car was damaged in back, of course, and the back car’s hood was crumpled up something bad. But that center car looked like a freaking squeezebox.

I realize that there’s no way to idiotproof the streets. But to me, it seems like the city of Phoenix isn’t even trying to make them safe.

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