The other day, as my car juddered over constellations of potholes, past tenuously maintained schools and bus stops done up in graffiti, I got to wondering. The California county where I live has some of the highest taxes in the nation. Our sales tax is 8.75 percent. It costs $4 to cross the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Yearly property taxes can easily reach five figures — and no, I’m not including pennies.
Yet in return for the torrent of tax money our government takes in, Californians have roads rated among the very worst in America, libraries that close for part of the week due to lack of funding, and a public school system that one respected research group has ranked 47th of the 50 states.
Where, I wondered, is all this tax money going? As I dived to a stop at yet another ill-timed red light with no cross traffic in sight for miles, the answer came to me from above.
Apparently there’s never a shortage of funds to pay for huge, complex and frequently superfluous arrays of traffic signals. They sprout like gigantic weeds along roadways large and small, occasionally actually making an intersection safer, but more often just obstructing traffic by reflexively “regulating” some half-abandoned side street that would be just as well off — possibly better off — with a plain old stop sign.
Clearly, an intersection unfettered by signals is a terrifying prospect to traffic engineers, and not just in California. So, after erecting jungles of signal poles on every street corner of every jerkwater town in America, the traffic engineers moved on to the suburbs with glee, slavering at all those miles of roads waiting to be put in harness.
Today it’s a rare suburban boulevard that hasn’t got a huge tangle of signals arching over it every few hundred feet, with redundent stacks of lamps addressing each and every lane and then some. Either we motorists are so dense that it takes five red lights to tell us what one used to, or else traffic engineers just can’t get enough of all that neat hardware.
Despite their numbing ubiquity, though, far too many traffic signals remain utterly brainless, mindlessly regulating traffic flow by time instead of by context. In this age of computing miracles, vast numbers of signals aren’t even smart enough to know that nobody’s coming.
We’ve all been in thrall to red and green lights for so long that we’ve come to accept their hurky-jerky senselessness as a normal part of driving.
Yet there’s no immutable law that demands traffic signals on every street corner in America, much less signals that can’t think straight. It’s happened in part because many cities and towns have come to regard elaborate signal installations as a sort of badge of urbanity, rather than as a useful tool that can be senselessly overemployed.
And it surely hasn’t hurt that they offer traffic engineers virtually infinite job security.
Given this kind of bureaucratic inertia, it seems inevitable that every pair of intersecting ruts in America will eventually be fitted with a full complement of traffic and pedestrian signals. Then we can all be stopped at a red light somewhere in East Podunk with our engines idling, while nobody’s coming the other way.