Pittsfield's traffic light mania



Another new traffic light has been installed in Pittsfield. This one is at the corner of Wahconah and North streets. Apparently that intersection has grown to be hazardous and merits a more sophisticated traffic control system to keep us safe and secure. It seems the previous single stop sign was no longer adequate, despite controlling the traffic at that location for the previous 100 years or so.

When I first came to Pittsfield to work for GE in the 1970s, my commute to work took me down West Street. At that time there were no traffic lights at the corner of West and Valentine nor was there a light at the corner of Onota and West. Now there are lights at these intersections. In fact, if I trace what was my preferred path to my former place of employment there are now a total of five additional traffic lights compared to the days I traveled a similar route in the 1970s. I find this remarkable.


The 1970 census was 57,020. The 2010 census shows Pittsfield at 44,737. Today it is less. How many more traffic lights do we have today then we had in years past? I don't have an exact number but for sure it is many. Why is this so? Less people, more control does not seem to make sense unless the number of miles driven in the city is much more than it was in the past. But with 12,000 fewer people living here and the remaining GE-legacy businesses employing a fraction of what they used to, that is highly doubtful.

Is there a conspiracy by the traffic light industry to install a light at every intersection in the city? Are we such bad drivers that we are unable to function without the help of the ubiquitous red, yellow and green?

I recommend that you count the traffic lights you encounter on your daily travels. I believe you will find it revelatory. The route I traverse to go from my home on the west side of the city to my fitness facility at Allendale, for example, has 18 traffic signals. Eighteen! When is enough, enough?

Traffic experts generally agree, and it seems like common sense, that lights cause more rear-end collisions than would normally occur. The idea of the traffic signal is to avoid what are called angle collisions, which are deemed more dangerous than rear-end collisions. The trade-off has to be made between one type of accident versus a possibly more severe one. But lights can actually cause more accidents if an angle collision danger does not exist.

The new systems are complex and costly. It is not unheard of to spend over a half million dollars on a traffic control system for an intersection. The new light system installed at Wahconah St. is quite elaborate. There are eight hanging lights each having the red, yellow, green, and green arrow signals These are supported by two huge posts with cantilevered arms. There are also five posts that support other signals including six walk/don't walk lights.

For pure complexity, however, it is hard to surpass the Park Square system. There are so many lights, posts and signs that it is difficult to count them all. I gave it a try and came up with the following: 15 major traffic signals (those with the hanging colored lights), 11 walk/don't walk signs, 10 posts to hold up the various signals and a plethora of small directional signs describing how to press the pedestrian buttons. Over-burdened taxpayers are paying for these expensive systems that may not be necessary.

There is also a deleterious environmental impact resulting from excessive traffic signals. Based on a city report it was projected that the electricity used to power the traffic signals in the city in 2012 would produce 86 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. This does not include the pollutants generated by idling autos. How many more tons of emissions are fouling our atmosphere by cars stopped at unneeded traffic lights is open for conjecture, as is how much of our exorbitantly expensive gas is being wasted.

Part of the problem, for sure, is the pothole politicians who cater to their constituents' whims when asked to insert a light at a perceived "dangerous" intersection. It takes courage for an elected official to deny a voters' supplication. The greater good is not considered and the individual supplicant, who after all does vote, often gets his or her way.


Rather than have drivers sitting needlessly in idling cars while wasting time and spewing toxins it would seem that a few simple measures would provide intelligent relief. First and foremost would be to totally and completely review all proposed new traffic signals. Only if there was imminent danger -- not convenience -- should a new light be installed. Secondly, lights should be operational only during peak traffic hours. With today's technology traffic signals can easily be switched to caution. There is no need to be sitting at a light in an idling car at 11 p.m. when there is no traffic to control. Thirdly, a review of existing lights that have outlived their usefulness should be conducted and those lights be permanently removed -- e.g. the light on East St. that formerly served the transformer plant. I suspect there are many more.

Hopefully some sanity will prevail in the future, otherwise we are doomed to sitting at expensive, often unnecessary, traffic lights, emitting pollutants simply because they are there.


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