Saturday, February 25, 2012

First Post!

Welcome to my academic/professional blog on urbanism! My full name is Theodore Lim, but you can call me Theo. I grew up in the beautiful city of Vancouver, Canada (which will forever be my home), but for the past 2.5 years I’ve been studying Civil Engineering at Stanford University in California. At the current moment I am abroad in Paris, France, but I’ll be back on campus in April 2012.

I’ll start this off with an analysis of the interesting street life just in front of my building. Here's a view out my window: the facade across the building is the RER Line B stop Cité Universitare. In the middle of the street is the tramway (Line T3) stop of the same name. In spite of the fact that there is virtually no commercial life directly near the station, this place is always filled with people, most of whom are transferring from the N-S RER line to the E-W Tramway line.

Cité Universitaire is along the southern side of the city and is a quarter dedicated exclusively to student housing. Look for the RER line B (thick vertical blue line); trace it from the bottom of the map till it intersects with the thin orange line in the bottom quarter of the map.  The Cité consists of over 30 maisons representing different parts of France and different countries around the world. However, there is basically no commercial activity in the area, except for the cafeteria, bakery, and theatre in the Cité Internationale main building, located about 100 m south of the Tramway stop. North of the stop is Parc Montsouris, a large park which is popular with joggers and families which has a gentle slope upward toward the station.
Most of the pedestrians who use Cité Universitaire transfer to the Tramway from the RER or Vice Versa. The RER itself is actually much faster than the Métro, as it has fewer stops and runs with higher speed trains. Such is the case that people will take the tramway from Jean Moulin or Porte De Choisy to Cité Universitaire to take the RER because it’s that much of a time saver.
Because of the high numbers of rushed pedestrians, it’s interesting to see what the planners have done with the intersection.

Point 1: Placement of traffic lights
Now this is actually something seen all over Paris. The traffic lights here are not strung up high over the traffic; no, all the traffic lights sit about 3 m (10 ft) above the ground directly on lampposts. There’s also a mini traffic light lower down on the post, which specifically caters to the first motorist in the lineup (who can’t see the traffic light above) as well as to any bicyclists. This entire traffic light setup is meant to keep motorists looking down at the road ahead, where people are likely crossing.
Point 2: Distribution of Traffic Lights
Notice that there are not just one set of traffic lights in front, but actually two more sets down the road. About every 30 seconds, or whenever a tram arrives, all the lights turn red at once. Any cars stuck in the ‘middle’ of the intersection are forced to stop instead of carrying on their way. In this way, traffic on the entire street stops, allowing pedestrians to cross. It doesn’t matter if there are cars in the way because pedestrians can easily thread their way through the breaks. What’s important is that all traffic has stopped, and then the entire length of street from the first traffic light to past the last traffic light essentially becomes one long pedestrian crosswalk.
Point 3: Textured Driving Surface
Not only at the crosswalk, but also about 20 m before and 20 m after, there is a cobblestone texture on the road instead of asphalt. Essentially this indicates that ‘there might be pedestrians crossing here anyway’ and, in a sense, appropriates the right-of-way to the pedestrian. There’s something subconscious and powerful about the rumble of driving over cobblestone streets that tells drivers to slow down and cede pedestrians the right of way.

Point 4: The Grassy Median
Pedestrians (such as myself) will often cross using the grassy median. This is generally not a problem or a hazard to the trams, since they tend to run at slower speeds and can stop about as fast as a car can. (Still, you need to be extra careful when crossing any set of train tracks!) Instead of fencing off the tracks, filling in the tracks with grass is not only pretty, but allows the pedestrian more freedom to cross the street at will and breaks down the barrier usually created by train tracks.
Point 5: Bicycle Signalling
The bicycle lane merges with the road near the station as the rights of way are not wide enough and a bicycle lane cutting through the pedestrian crosswalk could be dangerous. So instead, the bicyclist is asked to merge with traffic, taking advantage of the frequent red light cycle to give the cyclists priority to merge without being afraid of getting sideswiped. See in the first picture that the bicycle light (middle right) is red while the auto light is green; when the auto light is red, then the bike light turns green so that cyclists can merge into the road without problems. The cyclists are asked to stop with the auto traffic to give pedestrians the right of way; although cyclists often just continue through without stopping, the merge with auto traffic causes them to slow down and be more careful when crossing through the pedestrian crosswalk.
Point 6: It’s intuitive
The best part is that the entire intersection is intuitive. Each person or user of transport is given only one thing to watch for, or one area to watch at a time. The drivers watch the lights, which are positioned low down to make pedestrians visible. The pedestrians watch for cars at the road, then after the island, they are warned by large tram crossing lights if a tram is coming (or one could just look down the tracks - there are no obstructions). Bicyclists don’t have to worry about getting clipped, so they can themselves prevent collisions with pedestrians.
And… that’s about all I’ve got to say about design. The intersection works - well, I might add.

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