Earlham gets unofficial traffic light victory on US-40

For more of my commentary on life in Richmond, Indiana check out RichmondMatters.com.
(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

The Palladium-Item reported last night and again today that Earlham College appears to have won an initial victory in getting a traffic signal placed at a critical crossing point on US-40, the 4-lane highway that runs in front of its campus here in Richmond.

The Quaker college has tried for decades to get a traffic signal at its entrance, an effort that began soon after Earlham student David Rantanen was killed crossing the highway in 1962. Since then, two more people have died and several more were hit and injured by vehicles on the four-lane highway near the school's main drive.

While the decision isn't official, the concession on the part of state highway planners that a signal is needed is a major one.  I cringe when I'm in a car or walking as a pedestrian in that area, as it really is a game of "look both ways about 10 times and then cross your fingers and run for it" for pedestrians.  And while I ascribe no general ill will toward Earlham students on the part of Richmond drivers, it does seem to be a section of road that highlights the inherent disdain that some drivers have for pedestrians in this town.  Sometimes they even speed up a little when students are crossing, instead of slowing down.

The usual criticisms are already resurfacing: why should taxpayers pay for a crossing between two parts of a private campus, why didn't Earlham just build a pedestrian bridge with its vast vaults of extra cash, etc.  (And as usual, critics are posting their demands for answers in the Pal-Item's online comment section instead of taking them to the people who can actually answer them, which in my mind means they don't really want an answer, they just want to complain.)

But I think we can generally address those concerns by remembering that all of us pay for infrastructure like roads, sidewalks, crossing signals, traffic lights, etc. that may or may not directly benefit our own daily commute - it's nothing new to ask the entities that are responsible for managing that infrastructure to build some new ones in places that are needed.  The lives of pedestrians are no less worth protecting as they cross a public road, just because there happens to be privately owned land on either side...that's pretty much how every residential street works.

Congratulations to Earlham for creatively staying on this and to the INDOT folks for (finally) taking heed.

5 thoughts on “Earlham gets unofficial traffic light victory on US-40

  1. I was struck by 2 aspects of this article.

    The first was Doug Bennett's comment on the state standards for the placement of traffic signals. He notes that it took 50 years of lobbying for the colloge to get the signal placed, and the big obstical was IDOT's adherence to the "federal standards" which focus on the amount of vehicle crossing/entry at an intersection to determine whether signal placement is justified.

    Doug made the point that this standard takes no acount of pedestrian crossing traffic, so the actual rate of risk - not just the rate of pedestrian traffic - drives the decision: a very morbid meathod of protecting the public.

    It is clear that these standards are baised towards the motoring public - which is not really surprising from a culture that has not had any economic idea besides automobiles in 100 years. Nor is it likely to change, as the federal government is set to bail out the auto industry and spend billions on roads and highways.

    Earlham is one of the community's largest, longest standing, and most stable employers. Founded in 1847, it was here before the auto industry and its many affiliate manufactorors, and it is still here and going strong - long after the auto industry has all but left town.

    It strikes me as odd that such a valuable component of this community had to struggle for years to get some accomodation from the state for its paying "customers" while the town bends over backwards to accomodate any other industry.

    Clearly, the folks in Yellow Springs, Ohio could tell us something about how the loss of such a private college can impact a small community. The city, county and state take Earlham for granted - maybe the college should adopt a more "modern" view of the importance of bricks and mortar, and shop itself around to other communities like so many other businesses - I'm sure the folks in Yellow Springs would offer the college big incentives to make the move.

    I'm not advocating that stance, but certainly Doug would have had faster reuslts years ago by forming a "relocation committee" to force the issue.

  2. I saw that PI article when it came out, and it upset me greatly. I had not made any great commitment towards expressing my opposition to this idea, because I felt that INDOT would never agree to it. Unfortunately, it appears that Earlham was finally able to get the right politician on its side who knew how to exert pressure. Where was this guy when they got robbed by the Connor Prairie people?

    I agree that some treatment of the intersection was needed. My opinion however is that a light is the wrong treatment. I had read earlier that INDOT had previously decided on a pedestrian refuge in the center of the road, so people would be able to cross two lanes, safely wait for traffic to clear, then cross the other two. This is a typical design for this type of road, one that is used successfully here at Purdue for vastly larger volumes of crossing students than Earlham could generate if it moved all the dorms across US 40. In fact, I applied this design for a very similar situation on a road I was designing this summer adjacent to Northwestern University.

    The volumes of pedestrians crossing this road are minor and infrequent compared to the large traffic volumes passing along US 40, which is why INDOT has been so adamantly against this idea for so long. Additionally, lights may not make the intersection any safer for pedestrians, especially when compared to the pedestrian refuge. Pedestrians may no longer pay as much attention to traffic, assuming blithely that traffic will yield the right-of-way when instructed to by the light. However, Richmond drivers will likely become accustomed to waiting at the light for little or no traffic and start to run the yellow or even the red. An inattentive pedestrian and a careless driver are more likely a tragedy than a driver that need not care and a hyper-aware pedestrian.

    Lastly, I believe the Earlham administration is aware of these arguments and knows the 'refuge' concept will solve the problem of crossing at least as well or better than a light. Therefore, it is my hypothesis that they really want the light to improve vehicular access to and from the main entrance, especially the left turn out of the entrance. They use the 'pedestrian' argument since they know that the vehicular volumes do not come close to meeting a signal warrant, but that there is a special case allowing a light to be installed when there is a (paraphrase, my apologies) "history of crashes causing injuries to pedestrians", especially when the intersection is near a school or other educational institution.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Brian.

    I can follow the logic of the "pedestrian refuge" being a viable alternative to a light, although its name humorously says a lot about the status it imparts to pedestrians in the whole situation. If "RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!" is still the theme, I'm not sure things will have improved all that much.

    But I don't follow your suggestion that Earlham is acting disingenuously by using the specter of injured or killed students to improve vehicular access to campus. Do you have any evidence to back that up?

    Chris

  4. I don’t think there’s any evidence or even hint of bad faith here. It’s simply my cynicism toward all institutions. Here, they could protect students crossing, OR they could protect students crossing and improve their access. It’s a simple calculation; they can have one thing they want or two things they want. Of course they want two! Anybody would. A DOT’s job is to balance the needs of all the users of the road, and here some extra political weight was applied on the ‘Earlham’ side of the balance. It’s what makes traffic engineering such a simultaneously interesting and maddening field- its one part engineering, one part art, and one part political science.

  5. Are Earlham students the only people who cross US 40? I remember having to cross US 40 when walking to and from Dennis Jr. High many years ago. Many a time my friends and I crossed half the way, waited on the double yellow line, then finished crossing. No one was killed or injured--that I know of--but standing in the middle of a federal highway while waiting for traffic to pass is not one of my fondest childhood memories.

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