Q: I know the mess at the intersection of Route 22 and MacArthur Road is only temporary because of the construction, but I see a lot of intersections being blocked there and elsewhere (including in New York City). Recently I was in Ireland, where two things struck me: The speed limits are realistic, i.e., this is the fastest speed you can travel safely on this road, whereas in the U.S. they are silly, so low that everybody ignores them; and in Ireland, busy urban intersections are painted with a grid of yellow lines to indicate 'If you can't pass through, don't enter the cage.' And people obey it. Maybe they would here, too.
— Donald Clarke, Allentown
A: Maybe they would, Donald. If road markings would convince even some intersection-blockers to cease the practice, it would be worth the relatively small cost of applying the paint to the worst of the intersections.
To my experience, intersection blocking is a disease more common in major metropolitan areas than in the Lehigh Valley, though our economic and population growth in recent decades has been introducing more big-city-style problems to our roadways. Route 22 isn't exactly the Schuylkill Expressway yet, but conditions can resemble those of the infamous Philly-area highway at rush periods. And the rush periods seem to be expanding.
As you point out, intersection blocking reared its ugly cylinder head earlier this year during several stages of the ongoing reconstruction of the Route 22 MacArthur Road interchange. Construction-related traffic restrictions certainly contributed to the practice, frustration pushing some motorists' thermostats to the boiling point.
That's really the motive for blocking the box, isn't it? You've waited through three complete signal sequences, and the light turns yellow as you're about to enter the intersection. Traffic ahead is tight but inching along, and you figure by the time the yellow light expires, you'll have enough room to squeeze through, riding the bumper of the car ahead. Alas, two people ahead of you had the same idea, and when the light turns red, you're all at a dead stop, blocking cross traffic during its green phase. Others respond with a kind of vendetta-fueled rationale: The cross-street drivers did it to us, why not return the favor, just to even things out?
Whitehall Township posted temporary "don't block the intersection" signs at several affected MacArthur intersections earlier this year, which seemed to help, according to Mayor Ed Hozza. Since then, wider lanes, permanent traffic signals and other improvements related to progress on the Route 22 interchange reconstruction have improved overall flow on MacArthur.
Would road markings used in conjunction with signs help forestall intersection blocking wherever it occurs? PennDOT engineer Dennis Toomey thinks they might. In fact, this kind of marking was used recently, not at an intersection of two roads, but at the entrance to the Lower Macungie Township municipal complex on Brookside Road, Toomey said.
Repairs to the Swabia Creek Bridge just north of the township building required temporary signals to direct single-lane traffic across the bridge, and township officials worried that northbound traffic stopped at the red light quickly would back up past the entrance, blocking access for southbound vehicles needing to turn left across the lane for entry.
"We wanted a traffic light" at the entrance, said Township Manager Bruce Fosselman, but PennDOT balked because the signal would be too close to the temporary signal controlling the flow across the bridge, which is only about 350 feet away.
Instead, a no-blocking sign was posted at the entryway, and diagonal-line markings were painted onto the roadway to emphasize the prohibition. It seemed to work very well, according to township officials. "I think the signs [alone] wouldn't have done it, but the hatch [marking] opened people's eyes" to the prohibition, Fosselman said. "It was amazing; it worked very well."
Toomey said he's seen the road markings at some New York City intersections, and PennDOT engineer Tom Walter said they're used in Philadelphia as well, so there's precedent for their use in Pennsylvania.
Sarah Hamilton, area planning director for the nonprofit Medical Academic and Scientific Community Organization in Boston, said MASCO worked with city officials and police to have the markings added at 15 intersections in the city's Longwood Medical and Academic Area in the summer of 2012.
MASCO dubbed the project the "don't block the box" campaign, and to clarify exactly what the box is, the markings were painted to supplement "don't block the intersection" signs.
"It's worked very well as a visual cue" for motorists, Hamilton said of the road markings, adding that police pitched in with enforcement. "We sent a traffic engineer out and saw that the compliance rate actually improved," she said. The effect is ongoing; the MASCO website notes that more than 90 citations for blocking were written this past summer.
In a disincentive to blocking that boasts even more horsepower, Massachusetts slaps offenders with a $150 fine, a fact noted on the signs. That could also could help explain the success of the program in Boston. Whitehall's Hozza said similar signs noting that the fine and costs for Pennsylvania motorists could top $100 might be effective here as well.
In some follow-up- exchanges, Donald, you noted that Boston uses low-octane white markings compared to the tighter pattern of bright-yellow lines you saw in Ireland, and a look at a similar version used in London, an example of which is available on Wikipedia, reveals a design that even the most distracted drivers could not convincingly claim to have missed.
I'm not sure which model I'd try in a pilot program, but intersection road markings represent a viable option when intersection blocking reaches chronic proportions.
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