Lileks: The good, the bad and the ugly of Minneapolis stoplights

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 10, 2013 - 8:48 PM
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Photo: David Peterson, Star Tribune

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This month the city of Minneapolis begins the second phase of its traffic-light retiming project.

The cynics among you may think this means they’ve decided to stop inconveniencing people on north-south streets and plan to shift the pain east-west.

Others may wonder if there’s any logic to the timing at all. Of course! It’s a carefully calibrated system designed to coordinate the ceaseless streams of traffic into a choreographed ballet, with a purpose: to teach everyone that patience is a virtue. We lack the Olympian perspective and cannot discern the wisdom in these decisions.

For example, there’s an intersection in my neighborhood next to a playground, community center, swimming pool, school and a heavily trafficked bike path. People bunch up on the corner, stab the WALK button (which is connected to a machine in the traffic planner’s office that pops out a mini-doughnut, that’s all it does) and when the light finally turns green, the bikers and joggers and parents with strollers gush off the curb and join like two armies.

Perhaps one car can turn left through this mob, and if you’re the driver who clears it, you turn down the radio in case there’s the screeching sound of a bike caught in your undercarriage.

The light should be twice as long, but:

A) They’d have to retime the light two blocks back, which exists solely to facilitate the passage of school buses for a 10-minute interval at 4 p.m. but runs 24/7, causing people to sit behind a red at 3 a.m. for no reason, thinking, “adherence to the dictates of traffic signals is one of those unspoken acts that contributes to overall social cohesion.” And then they figure it’s broken and run it. Let someone else cohere to society. I’m not sitting here all night.

B) People who complained that the red light was too short when they were waiting on the north-south street would complain that the red light was too long when they were waiting on the east-west street. That’s the rule: Any light you cannot make is too short, and any light that makes you wait is too long.

Even if they time the lights differently, it won’t affect the plain old stop signs that regulate every corner. Everyone loves a four-way, because it’s fair. Everyone takes turns. Sometimes there’s that confusion when someone isn’t paying attention, and you wave them through, feeling gallant. Like you did a good deed for the day. Like it’s something that shows up on your permanent record when you get to heaven. Well, you cheated on your taxes for six years, but you waved Mrs. Elmer Johnson through the intersection in 1962, so I guess it all evens out.

No one loves intersections where only one side has stop signs. I come to a dead stop, wait, turn off the car, get out and look down the street before continuing. Because the minute you think it’s safe and nose through, someone comes through so fast the paint’s peeling off their hood.

Then there’s the swinging yellow light over the intersection, which means “you are passing through a ghost town that had its last Lions Club meeting in 1982, so take your foot off the gas for five seconds.

When I was growing up in Fargo, there were intersections with no stop signs at all. You were just on your own. Every man for himself. The wild, wild west. My mother told her children to proceed with care through 8th and 23rd, because once — 10, 11 years before, some juvenile delinquent hopped up on goofballs and listening to rock ’n’ roll had blown through doing 27 miles per hour without a care in the world.

She never forgot it and reminded us constantly. Hence I never forgot it. My sister never forgot it. To this day I stop at that intersection in Fargo, expecting the ghost of James Dean to shoot through and T-bone me.

That’s how it works: Ancient memory affects how you look at the streets you drive. There’s a patch of Xerxes near Southdale that begs for a 45-mph limit — you’re just coming off the freeway, it’s broad, visibility is great, “Stayin’ Alive” is on the radio and so you don’t notice the sign that says “4 MPH” or something equally ridiculous, and you really don’t notice the squad car sheathed in military-grade stealth technology.

And so you get pulled over. Happened to me once; I was let go with a citation for “unnatural acceleration” or something like that. Maybe “unwarranted momentum.” The point wasn’t to give tickets. The point was to make you think for the rest of your life of that squad car sitting in the shadows on a side street.

And it worked.

The best way to make people more cautious? Arrange for everyone to have a near-accident almost everywhere, and pull them over at strategic locations. Or time all the lights so you can make 90 percent of them if you do the speed limit.

Perhaps that’s how it works. But who would know?

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