Red light photo from Shutterstock.com

I almost hit a cyclist last week while driving. The cyclist would have been at fault; he ran a red light. But did the red light encourage his bad behavior, and would a stop sign be safer?



I was driving down 18th Street mid-morning, approaching P. The light was green and I was traveling about 25 mph. As I started to enter the intersection, I suddenly saw a cyclist ride into the intersection from the right at a full cycling speed.

I hit my brakes, he hit his and swerved. We both stopped before reaching the point where our paths would have crossed. Fortunately, had either of us not seen the other, we probably would still not have collided, but it was very harrowing.



As my heart rate returned to normal, I thought about why this man would have ridden this way. He surely knew, as he rode at a good clip from Dupont Circle to 18th, that the light was red; it had been for tens of seconds already and the pedestrian countdowns showed it wasn’t about to change. What we he thinking?



Some people are just foolish, but perhaps he was not expecting any cars to come down the road. I hadn’t been in a long line of cars; the road was pretty empty. While that’s no excuse — and even for people who believe in the Idaho Stop, the only safe thing to do at a light is come to a complete stop before proceeding — he might have drawn the wrong conclusion from the street’s emptiness.

I’ve spent a lot of time waiting at that light as a pedestrian, a cyclist, and a driver. Except when in a car I’ve gone through it, too, though only after stopping. Since, outside rush hour, there really is not much traffic here, maybe we need to ask a deeper question: should there be a traffic light here?

Why not a stop sign? Or if 18th is so busy at rush hours, how about a flashing 4-way red (which acts as a stop) at other times?

There are many intersections that could have stop signs instead of lights

Several similar intersections come to mind just in Dupont, which I’m very familiar with, and there are surely others in other neighborhoods. The light at 19th and R forces drivers on R to often wait a long time before getting to queue up to cross Connecticut Avenue, while little or no cross traffic passes on 19th. There’s a triangle of lights at 18th and New Hampshire where you more often spend time waiting for no apparent reason than actually getting somewhere.

At 18th and N, if you’re driving north on 18th, it often turns red just as cars cross Connecticut, forcing an immediate stop; driving south on 18th, almost everybody is turning right on N to cross Connecticut, but the odd person who wants to turn left often has to wait for northbound cars and block everyone else.

People race on P from 16th over to 17th to beat a light they know might change at any moment, making them wait 30 seconds while few cars pass on 17th. The list goes on. At all of these places, pedestrians and cyclists routinely go through red lights because there is so much time when no traffic is going through with the green.

Stop signs manage traffic better on medium-traffic streets

A stop sign may let fewer cars move through an intersection per minute when there is heavy demand, but when it’s light, it actually can reduce the amount of delay each driver encounters because they have to just take the time to stop, not wait a somewhat random amount of time for the light to change.

Certainly stop signs are not appropriate on the major multi-lane streets like Connecticut and 16th, but for the many intermediate streets, even ones that are longer-distance through streets, stop signs (or part-time flashing red stop signs) could make the road network work better for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike.

In our discussion of Portland cyclists stopping at red lights, Paul H wrote,

On the question of stop and proceed at quiet residential street traffic lights, these are exactly the kind of places that should have simpler traffic controls — lights (expensive to operate and maintain as well) should be replaced by four-way stops, four-way stops replaced by mini-traffic circles (familiar in Portland, Arlington and MoCo). Smplifying traffic controls at intersections without heavy traffic encourages all users to pause, evaluate, negotiate with each other, and proceed cautiously. Stress, danger, cost, and travel times are all reduced.

Similarly, as a downtown cyclist and pedestrian, I’m always amazed at the decision to time lights that run 60-90 seconds. In the burbs it can be two minutes or over. Add a bunch of those together and it’s maddening, particularly when the streets are empty but also when one local street has clearly been timed to facilitate long-distance travel over local passage — understandable for arterials, not cool for neighborhood streets.

Shorten interval times, I’d be much more likely as a pedestrian and cyclist to participate in the motorist management system (we all know the lights and signs exist primarily to manage cars, if there were only bikes and peds it would look extremely different and in many places wouldn’t exist). As a driver, yes I do, I’d be more likely to drive calmly and cautiously — nothing makes you feel the urge to floor it like a yellow light when you know that you’ll be waiting forever.


Stop signs can also be good for buses, which tend to spend a lot of time waiting at lights before or after they drop off passengers. With a stop sign, the bus can just continue after the doors close.

The Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), the traffic engineers’ bible, defines standards for when an intersection can or should have a stop light, stop signs, nothing, or other options. But there is leeway, and many decisions in cities end up being political. Often residents think they want a light, assuming that one is always better, but it’s not.

Had there been a stop sign at 18th and P, I would have been stopping that day instead of driving on through. Even if the cyclist hadn’t stopped as he legally should have, there would then have been less chance of a crash. I’d much prefer to have that, even when I drive.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.