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Traffic Lights | John Ginsburg

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Traffic Lights | by John Ginsburg

According to the traffic division of the City of St. Louis Streets Department, there are 650 signalized intersections within the city limits. This number may be inaccurate, as the website for the division has not been updated since 1999, but the question nonetheless remains: how many of the signals at these intersections make ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE?

I think I was spoiled growing up in Albuquerque. All of the major intersections there follow the same pattern. First comes the left-turn arrow. At the same time, the cross traffic gets a right-turn arrow (yep, all intersections have those, too), so there are 4 directions turning simultaneously. Then, you get the regular green. After that, you get the right-turn arrow. And so on. But, not only that – these intersections are also pressure-plated, so if there is no car in the left-turn lane, the left-turn arrow doesn’t come on for that direction. Truly brilliant.

Apparently, the mission of the City traffic division is "to facilitate the safe and efficient movement of people, vehicles, and goods". Let’s focus on the word efficient, shall we? How many times have you been at a red light in the City when there is no cross traffic whatsoever? Or the light seems to go on forever and you are in the only car at the intersection? Wouldn’t you think that someone would have noticed how useless these lights are? Until I see an opening for Traffic Light Signalization Timing and Synchronizing Dude, I offer a sampling of my least-favorite intersections in the City of St. Louis.

Roads to Nowhere

  • Spring at Forest Park Parkway. Travel either east or west on Forest Park Parkway. Get caught at the light at Spring. Look left and right. To the north, Spring goes one block and then ends at Laclede. To the south, besides some old industrial nothingness, there is a bridge that no longer exists. So, basically, this light exists, for what? The 5 people drinking at Humphrey’s who happen to be parked on Spring? As if Forest Park Parkway is so damn busy they could not turn with merely a stop sign? The worst part of this light, adding insult to injury, is that the left turn lanes on Forest Park get their own left arrow. There’s nowhere to go, dammit!
  • Olive at Leffingwell. Similar to the above, this light is always on, and never has any north-south traffic. Why? Because to the south is an apartment complex, and to the north, Leffingwell continues for a few blocks before ending. Where no one lives and just a few people work. And, thus, no cars. Same goes for the stupid-ass parking garage to the south of this location on Market St. across from AG Edwards. Why?! It ain’t the 1950’s anymore. We don’t have 800,000 people in the City. Neither Olive nor Market are so busy that an apartment complex or a parking garage needs its own damn light. See also 7th at Lebanon.
  • 14th at Lafayette. Every now and then, a car or two heading southbound on 14th Street is going to turn onto Lafayette. Sure. But, does this warrant a traffic light? Of course not. Plenty of opportunities to turn. It is not that busy on Lafayette. But, the thing that is the most preposterous, the fist-clencher, the hair-puller: southbound and northbound 14th street each get their own separate time with a green light. There is NOTHING on 14th St. south of Lafayette except 2 blocks of empty lots! The houses near the corner of Tucker and Lafayette are east of 13th St., so they have no need of 14th St. to access Lafayette. This separate green for northbound 14th St. may qualify as the most stupid light synchronization in town.

To Turn Left or Not Turn Left

  • Forest Park Parkway at Euclid, eastbound. This is the subcategory of “left only on left arrow.” Come on. Like we can’t see whether there is on-coming traffic on westbound Forest Park. Why are we forced to sit here while people behind us honk, either ignorant of the sign telling us we can’t turn yet, or knowing how pointless it is? Eliminate this nonsense. Also see Grand at Arsenal.
  • Hampton at Lloyd. Another subcategory in which the left-turn arrow (and only the left-turn arrow) comes on regardless of whether or not anyone is in the left turn lane. Hello. Noone wants to go to McDonald’s right now. Please don’t make me sit here, by myself at this intersection, waiting for the light to change. Install a pressure plate.
  • Hampton at West Park. This is the final subcategory when it comes to left turns, called “taking your life in your own hands, because little did you know that the on-coming traffic STAYS GREEN when your light turns red.” It may not be the most legal thing in the world, but many drivers who are wanting to turn left on a busy street sneak out into the intersection, and then wait for the light to turn yellow so they can turn left at the end of the cycle. Of course, the cycle is not over for the people coming straight at you. This is the epitome of asking for an accident. Traffic engineers should know better.


  • The stretch of Manchester between Kingshighway and McCausland. Count the lights and note the streets. The major thoroughfares of Sulfur, Sublette, Knox, and Prather are among the streets that cross good-ole Missouri Route 100. None of these are necessary. Even Macklind doesn’t have that much cross-traffic, and besides, what traffic is clogging Manchester? The M.P. O’Reilly’s and Nick’s Pub crowds are travelling at different times than rush hour. None of us are fighting our way to the St. Louis Marketplace. The most bizarre thing about this 2-mile piece of roadway is that within the last year, ALL of these intersections received brand-new signals and street signs. For what? They’re blinking red most of the time anyway. Best case of “somebody’s brother owns a sign company” in town.
  • Saving the best for last: Skinker/Clayton/McCausland/Oakland/Forest. In front of the big-ass Amoco sign, no matter how the lights are sequenced at this grouping of intersections, it never makes sense. There is trying to figure out what to do when you come out of Dogtown from Clayton Ave. and spend 20 boring feet on Forest. There is the murderous timing of the signals where the I-64 westbound exit lets out (see the 3rd subcategory about turning left, above). And, there is the mysteriously long left-turn arrow for southbound traffic to turn at the Hi-Pointe onto either Oakland or Clayton, which nobody gets to use because they are waiting at the previous light. Even before the Traffic Division gets around to updating their website, they should spend some time observing the near-misses every few minutes.

I am sure there are many other stupid intersections within our fair City. I acknowledge the lack of North City traffic lights mentioned above. While I am not on those streets as frequently as those in the central corridor, I can assure you that I have driven around north of Delmar at all hours of day and night, and wondered why a signal was operating the way it was, or why on earth it was operating at all.

Imagine if I had talked about stop signs.


John Ginsburg is the Director of the University Center and Student Activities at Webster University, where he is also an adjunct faculty member teaching Urban Issues, St. Louis Politics, and next year will teach a study abroad course in Namibia. He also has his J.D. from Saint Louis University School of Law and lives in Dogtown.