Streets of Durango

For the city of Durango and the Colorado Department of Transportation to experiment with new ways to control traffic is commendable. Implicit in the idea of an experiment, however, is the recognition that not everything tried works out. Traffic control measures that do not function as intended should be scrapped – before someone gets hurt.

Last Sunday, the Herald reported on the numerous new traffic controls that have been employed in Durango, as well as a few other situations people wish could be improved. The examples run from mundane to sublime, quixotic to just plain dangerous.

On the happy end of the scale are the “State law ... ” signs marking crosswalks on Main Avenue downtown. They are inexpensive, pose no hazard to motorists and they work. Coupled with ticketing jaywalkers, perhaps they could be used on north Main as well.

The city’s roundabouts also function well. By slowing drivers and merging traffic at a shallow angle, they eliminate the possibility of getting “T-boned.” About the worst that can happen is a fender-bender.

Just remember: Vehicles in the circle have the right of way. There is no such thing as through traffic in a roundabout. And signaling when about to exit the circle is a welcome courtesy to drivers trying to enter it.

The flashing yellow left turn lights took a little getting used to, but they allow light traffic to flow more smoothly while still protecting safety at busier times. They would work better if more drivers stuck to the speed limit.

In other cases there is little to be done. Drivers may treat it as a continuation of 11th and 12th streets, but Town Plaza is private property. There is not much the city can do there.

Dysfunction Junction is city property, but in that case it is hard to see what else could be done. The physical layout at the intersection of East Third Avenue, 15th Street and Florida Road make other options prohibitively expensive.

The installation of a curb where Highway 3 traffic turns left onto Camino del Rio has the elegance of simplicity. By preventing kamikaze dashes across traffic to the entrance to Walmart, a few yards of concrete ended a major safety issue.

While more technically complex, the Barnes Dance at College and Main simplified foot traffic and enhanced the feel of downtown. Named for a traffic engineer, the signals there stops all vehicular traffic and turns the entire intersection over to pedestrians for 30 seconds every cycle. Besides allowing diagonal crossing, it is a welcome statement that downtown traffic is not all about cars.

But if Durango’s respect for pedestrians mark two of its better ideas, provisions for foot traffic are also its worst. In an effort to forestall the fix that Camino del Rio really needs – pedestrian underpasses – the city and CDOT have installed a high-intensity activated crosswalk, or HAWK signal – the acronym does not even make sense – at 12th Street and Camino del Rio. (There is another on Florida Road.) The HAWKs are unnecessarily weird and confusing.

The two HAWK signals go from completely off to flashing yellow to steady yellow to solid red to flashing red. But in the flashing red mode, which means the same as a stop sign, there are two alternately flashing red lights. Why? And why not the regular green-yellow-red we all understand? The sequence and display confuses drivers, has produced more horn blowing than Durango has heard in years and could endanger pedestrians.

The signal at 7th and Camino is far worse. When pedestrians activate it, a bunch of small yellow lights flash to caution motorists. But they do not stop traffic, are unlike any other signal and are on each side of the street where drivers are not conditioned to look for traffic lights. With even a few vehicles around, drivers’ view of the lights and pedestrians can be blocked. Unless changed, that crossing is going to get somebody killed.

Innovation and experimentation are all well and good. But recognizing the occasional failure has to be part of that process – especially when lives are at stake.

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