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Getting the wrong signal on traffic improvements

Part 1: Urban planning's black eye

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You're approaching an intersection late at night, and you're the only car on the road for a half mile around. What happens? The traffic light turns red just before you get there, because the purportedly "sophisticated" traffic control system is too dumb to sense what is obvious to the eye: No one is coming the other way. The signal blindly shuttles through its motions no matter what the external situation. So you sit idling in the empty intersection, your engine wasting gasoline and spewing exhaust, while the green lights glow magnanimously toward cross traffic that isn't there.

Think about this for a moment: If computers, cars or coffee makers worked as poorly as America's traffic signals do, their makers would promptly be laughed off the market. Not so with traffic signals. Despite being quite probably the most inept mechanisms in common use today, signals continue to proliferate, thanks to the many traffic engineers who accept abysmal per...