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Why are there so many stop signs?

One of the questions I had at our commission meeting on Monday was: "have any residents ever petitioned to have stop signs removed from their block?" I was guessing the answer is no. And, although village staff was going off the top of their heads without extensive research, my guess was accurate. Stop sign requests are--pardon the pun--one way.

Monday evening yet another petition by residents was before us. This time the neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Grove and Berkshire was asking that two-way stop signs on Berkshire be changed to an all-way stop so that traffic on Grove would be required to stop. Their reasoning was speeding, a recent crash, and the presence of many more children in the area.

The problem, however, is that the installation of stop signs doesn't help with speeding. It slows traffic for about 150 feet near the intersection, but it doesn't help with mid-block speeds. Drivers, in fact, become frustrated with having to stop...especially when there doesn't seem to be a "valid" reason to stop so they actually race to make up time in between.

So how did Oak Park end up with so many stop signs then?

The short answer is that there was, originally, a system in place of "every other block" traffic control devices. But this approach--I'm not clear if this was formal or informal--has been disrupted by numerous all-way stop signs being erected in recent years. Neighborhoods can request them by getting a percent of each affected block to sign a petition which then comes before the Transportation Commission. (That process, by the way, is being examined by the commission to develop a more quantitative approach. I've written about it in another post if you care to search.) But they can also be placed by, say, the police after a traffic incident. Or the village engineers can request them after looking at crash data. Each of those has happened, but the most likely scenario seems to be resident petition.

This leads to confusion and frustration as drivers are unsure what to expect at upcoming intersections when driving down a street. And I've heard the comment more than once that "it seems like every intersection is a stop sign now." It begs the question about maybe every residential, 25 mph block should be a stop sign?

I was less concerned with this individual request being asked of us on Monday and more interested in the philosophical argument behind stop signs. I can make the argument both for and against. So I'm "neutral" to some extent. Now, I think that if a group of residents has gone above and beyond the call of duty to organize and advocate for their street I'm disinclined to go against their wishes. It pits local control against the judgment of objective science. But I happily will vote in favor of something that seems to have popular support with no good, hard rationale behind saying no other than general studies. There has been no specific research to Oak Park other than a couple of aging community-wide car volume and crash studies 20 years ago. As the commission has pointed out before, that information is probably out of date. Badly.

So I'll tell you the real reason stop signs are so prevalent. They're cheap and easy. And they set a standard. Sure, for more money and more "hassle" (ie meetings, input, design, study, employee hours, etc.) we could develop another method of calming traffic. We're trying to develop a "toolbox." But a stop sign instantly forces a car to stop--whether someone is there or not--giving the opportunity for pedestrians, bikes, and motorists to cross or turn. Are stop signs sometimes ignored? Sure. The risk of running a stop sign, sadly, is much greater than the risk of failure to yield at a simple crosswalk. So there's a greater chance of getting a driver to pay attention.

In this instance, the traffic on Berkshire was high volume but didn't have the problem with speeding. The one accident at the intersection didn't raise the Critical Crash Rate and was due to equipment failure. However, you had a long (Oak Park blocks are longer North-South) 2 block stretch of uninterrupted pavement where drivers were hitting 30 mph in a 25 mph zone near a school, park, on a residential street. A stop sign, even if the vehicle traffic volume doesn't call for it, makes sense on a grid like ours. In my opinion. Others are free to disagree. But until we come up with a better method for convincing drivers to slow down in neighborhoods and allow for bikes and pedestrians, the stop sign becomes a kind of default.

Have we turned down a stop sign before? Sure. I can think of an instance where it would have backed up traffic for a much busier intersection. And I can think of several instances where we've requested that information about possible obstruction and had a long conversation about it.

A point made on Monday is valid though...once a stop sign is installed, it's probably there for good. What will the legacy be in decades to come as future generations wonder about the hodgepodge of stop signs all over the village? Is this something that previous generations should have anticipated? Why wasn't traffic better controlled when housing was built at the turn of the previous century? Maybe they figured we'd come up with solutions to our own problems should they happen?

I'm open to hearing outside opinion here. Especially from drivers...what would make you slow down and stop for pedestrians if not a stop sign?