For a More Walkable City, Replace Signals with All-Way Stops

As part of a walkability study, nineteen of Albuquerque’s downtown traffic signals were deemed unnecessary. Nine have since been removed. Photo:  Speck & Associates LLC
As part of a walkability study, nineteen of Albuquerque’s downtown traffic signals were deemed unnecessary. Nine have since been removed. Photo: Speck & Associates LLC

Streetsblog the exclusive right to publish a series of excerpts from Jeff Speck’s new book, Walkable City Rules (Island Press). These “rules” will be shared in conjunction with the book’s release this month.

Walkable City Rules, the upcoming book from Jeff Speck. Image: Island Press
Image: Island Press

Rule 76: Replace Signals with All-way Stops
In many places, stop signs are the safest solution.

For many years, cities inserted traffic signals at their intersections as a matter of pride, with the sentiment that more signals made a place more modern and cosmopolitan. Recently, that dynamic has begun to change, as concerns about road safety have caused many to question whether signals are the best solution for intersections experiencing moderate traffic.

Research now suggests that all-way stop signs, which ask motorists to approach each intersection as a negotiation, turn out to be much safer than signals.

Unlike with signals, no law-abiding driver ever passes an all-way stop sign at more than a very low speed, and there is considerable eye contact among users. This greater safety has multiple causes. Unlike with signals, no law-abiding driver ever passes an all-way stop sign at more than a very low speed, and there is considerable eye contact among users. People walking and biking are generally waved through first. And nobody tries to beat the light.

While it would be useful to have more data, the main study on this subject, from Philadelphia, is compelling. It recounts the 1978 removal of 462 traffic signals due to a 1977 state ruling disallowing signals at intersections with limited traffic. In almost all cases, the signals were replaced by all-way stop signs. The overall reduction in crashes was 24 percent. Severe injury crashes were reduced 62.5 percent. Severe pedestrian injury crashes were reduced by 68 percent.

While some pedestrians and drivers prefer signalized intersections, these data are too conclusive to ignore. Until a contradicting study is completed, cities should be compelled to conduct an audit of current signalization regimes to determine which signals may be eliminated.

When converting signals to stop signs, cities face the choice of two-way and all-way stops. Clearly, if one street contains tremendously more traffic than the other, a two-way stop makes more sense. However, there is no doubt that all-way stops should be used wherever they do not pose an undue burden, as they are 50 percent to 80 percent safer than two-ways.

Additionally, two-way stops hurt walkability, as they require people crossing the major street to dodge traffic. For this reason, it seems wise to leave signals in place in locations where an all-way stop is not justified.

One great byproduct of converting signals to stops is money saved: stop signs are much cheaper to install and maintain than signals. This fact is important to keep in mind as one considers the conversion of a downtown’s streets from one-way to two-way. The principal cost of these reversions is signal reorientation. However, while signals are almost always required where multilane one-ways intersect, they are often not required where two-lane two-ways intersect. Moreover, when two-lane two-ways cross at a four-way stop sign, there is often no need or use for left-turn lanes, and that pavement can be used instead for parking or cycling.

A word is also needed about the driver experience that accompanies the replacement of signals with all-way stops. It is true that, compared to a network of signals, a network of stops signs result in a drive that is interrupted by more pauses. But these pauses are all quite brief.

Never does the driver have to sit and wait for a light to turn from red to green. Such waits at signalized intersections are often 30 seconds long or longer, and, across a network, can add up to a lot of time wasted. Surprisingly, more stops can mean a quicker commute.

Finally, some air-quality advocates will argue against new stop signs due to the additional pollution caused by cars stopping and starting. This argument is accurate, but only in isolation, ignoring the smaller carbon footprint of more walkable places. As stop signs make places safer to walk, they can be expected to reduce overall driving, countering this impact.

There is no reason to conduct an expensive study on this subject. For each intersection with traffic that is moderate and fairly balanced, conduct a one-week test of an all-way stop configuration. If problems don’t arise, make it permanent.

61 thoughts on For a More Walkable City, Replace Signals with All-Way Stops

  1. If this is accompanied by a rule change allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as yields, it’s also quite beneficial for cyclists. It’s rare that traffic signals on any street are timed well for cyclists. When this happens, it’s almost always because a secondary timed speed happens to exist at whatever light timing was used for motorists. Even if there is a secondary timed speed, it will only work for a small subset of cyclists who ride at that speed, and often only in one direction. More often than not in NYC anyone cycling legally will go a few blocks, have to wait 30 seconds or more for a red light, and repeat this for much of their journey. The end result could be doubling, even tripling, travel times, plus expending a lot more energy. In extreme cases the repeated stopping and starting can result in leg strain or leg cramps.

    I’m mostly in agreement with the article but I’m not really on board retaining traffic lights on some streets because a four-way stop can’t be justified. There are other potential solutions. For starters you should install pedestrian islands to give people crossing a safe place to wait if both directions of traffic don’t remain clear long enough for them to cross. For another, you need enforcement of basic traffic laws which give pedestrians in these situations the right-of-way, with the caveat that they don’t enter the crosswalk when a vehicle is too close to stop. Yes, there may still be a need to retain traffic lights in key locations with heavy pedestrian traffic, and I have no problems with that. However, there should be guidelines. If one intersection has a traffic light, then you’re not allowed to install another for 1/4 mile in either direction. Remember that one traffic light will tend to mostly stop traffic on that road for a few blocks in either direction even if those intersections aren’t signalized. The only traffic would be turning cars from the perpendicular streets. That, plus the aforementioned pedestrian islands, should provide safe crossing with reasonable wait times. If you have traffic signals more widely spaced, it’s also mathematically easier to find alternate timed speeds which work for bikes. With signals every 250 feet it’s virtually impossible to do that.

    Roundabouts are another tool which should be used a lot more often. If you combine all these tools, I think NYC can go from 12,000 signalized intersections to under 1,000, with the bulk of those being either in Manhattan, or in denser parts of the outer boroughs. In an area like mine, traffic signals should be a relative rarity.

  2. Problem with changing what a stop sign means and using them unnecessarily is that it breeds contempt and confusion for both stop signs and cyclists.

    I’m all for walkability, but all way stops is just a. lazy copout for actual engineering. You’d be better off just eliminating control at the intersection entirely (like most neighborhood intersections, which have no signals or signs) or adding a pedestrian scramble to the light cycles. All way stops serve nobody.

  3. This would be a good move if there’s also a systematic installation of concrete curb extensions, raised crosswalks, and other physical treatments to narrow the road and slow drivers. Stop signs are not respected by drivers, yielding to pedestrians is doing them a favor, not a legal obligation.

  4. I don’t know about the study states, but where I live in Staten Island stop signs appear to me to be about the most commonly ignored control device in town.

    I think one has to be careful when advocating single solutions to traffic safety problems. NYC’s Vision Zero program seems to be evidence that comprehensive solutions work best.

  5. I don’t think drivers and cyclists in New York City would obey the law. They barely obey it with traffic signals when the pedestrian has the legal right of way.

  6. Roundabouts should be considered where the space is available, as they can replace both signals and stop signs. Many stop signs on low traffic streets should be replaced by yield signs. While collisions do occur with stop-contolled intersections, they are much less likely to be fatalities and severe injuries as compared to signal-control. The criteria for all intersection control should first be: does it improve or worsen safety for people walking?

  7. Look to Philadelphia for a case where stop signs have been widely implemented in large areas of the city. Drivers tend to roll through them at a “fast” roll speed. But they do check for cross traffic. I don’t know if that would be safer or not than what we currently have.

    Of course this would be really bad for getting anywhere on bike, if you have to stop every block.

  8. Even with an Idaho Stop rule, you still have to slow WAY down on a bike. It’s definitely easier and faster if you can catch a green light.

  9. I think it’s clear that the current regime breeds contempt for cyclists.

    People on bicycles roll through stops signs because doing so is safe and effective. The Idaho Stop makes it safe, effective, and legal. Further it invites the question and prompts people to learn something. Finally, it gets cops off the hook for enforcing a law that accomplishes nothing, other than to encourage cyclists to hate cops.

    As for all-way stops, they dominate my neighborhood in Alexandria (Del Ray) and work well. Intersections with 2-way (versus 4-way) stops are noticeably less comfortable for cycling. And long-cycle lights are an invitation to frustration-driven lawbreaking.

  10. Ideally, you would have mostly 2-way stops which give priority to the main road, and only use 4-way stops when main roads intersect each other. I’m not a fan of using 4-way stops at every intersection.

    Increased use of stop signs instead of traffic signals, whether it’s 2-way or 4-way stops, should also be accompanied by measures to improve lines of sight. That means removing parking within 20 feet of a crosswalk. If that’s done in conjunction with Idaho stops, then in many cases if there’s no traffic a cyclist can proceed nearly at cruising speed through stop signs. For what it’s worth, when I pass stop signs or red lights, I find I can safely go 8 to 10 mph even with less than optimal lines of sight. Yes, that’s still slowing down quite a bit, but it’s better than coming to a complete stop and sitting there 30 or 40 seconds every 3 blocks. Traffic signals may be easier and faster catching them on green, but in NYC maybe that happens half the time. With improved lines of sight, I could probably safely pass most stop signs at ~15 mph.

  11. Not a fan of using 4-way stops everywhere. For cyclists, the best solution is probably 2-way stops which give priority to the cycling route. Traffic lights in general suck unless they can be put on sensors so they only go red if something is crossing. Uncontrolled intersections can work well also, but only if there are good lines of sight. If you have to come nearly to a stop every block, that gets very tedious very quickly.

  12. With regards to your criteria, traffic signals almost always make things worse for people walking. They may stop traffic at the intersection where they’re installed, but they increase speeding elsewhere when drivers try to beat the light. They also cause quick turns which kill pedestrians as drivers try to get their turn in before the light changes. There is really only one instance where traffic lights should definitely be used, and that’s at intersections which have uncorrectable poor lines of sight, such as obstructions by piers or abutments. In every other case, they should be among the last solutions.

    Roundabouts are one of the better solutions for everyone. They force slowing to safe speeds before intersections. They require yielding to crossing pedestrians before entering the roundabout. They generally don’t slow down cyclists by much.

  13. In Cincinnati there has been push back to new stop signs in our urban neighborhoods based on the idea that the historic urban buildings (without setbacks) create visibility problems for transecting cars, which leads to stopped cars inching into crosswalks and reducing walkability.

  14. We need more walkable street in our neighborhoods. More and more of us want to be within safe and comfortable walking distance of the destinations that meet our everyday needs, such as shops, places to eat, services, parks, and good transportation options that can take us downtown and to jobs and other places we want to go. It’s the hottest trend in real estate, sought by buyers and renters alike. Let’s elaborate on the good part: More and more of us want to be within safe and comfortable walking distance of the destinations that meet our everyday needs, such as shops, places to eat, services, parks, and good transportation options that can take us downtown and to jobs and other places we want to go. It’s the hottest trend in real estate, sought by buyers and renters alike. http://www.daisylimo.com

  15. It could, if combined with Idaho Stop laws and clarity around who goes first when bike lanes meet up at those all-way stops.

  16. My experience over several trips to Philadelphia over the past five years is that drivers in that city come to full stops at stop signs, even when no pedestrians are present. That was one of the first things I noticed about Philly drivers, as their conduct differed so dramatically from the New York practice of blowing stop signs entirely, to which I had become accustomed.

    Perhaps it’s different if you look only at Center City; but I have done most of my Philly riding on streets such as Torresdale and Frankford Avenues, heading out to Northeast Philly where I ususally stay. And on those streets, as well on streets such as as Busteton, Tyson, Oxford, and Rising Sun Avenues, the behaviour of drivers (with respect not only to stop signs, but also to red lights, as well as to a bicyclist’s hand signals) is markedly better than the behaviour of New York’s drivers.

  17. If rolling the stop is safe, then the stop sign isn’t warranted in the first place, it should be a yield. Seriously, does nobody even look at the MUTCD on these things?

  18. In my experience, 4-way stops are more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. 4-way stops are dangerous because there’s ambiguity. Nobody but nobody ever comes to a complete stop at most 4-way stops in SF. At every intersection it’s a guessing game of who’s going to go first. And yes, drivers blowing through 4-way stops is a pretty regular occurrence. When I’m biking or walking, i will travel out of my way to avoid 4-way stops because they’re way more dangerous, especially when steep hills and parked cars obstruct visibility. I would much prefer traffic signals, or even traffic circles. 4-way stops are not a safer solution for intersections. I’d like to see where the data is that claims otherwise, because I’m pretty certain it didn’t come from SF streets.

  19. In SF, I go out of my way to avoid walking or biking on streets with 4-way stops because in every single instance they are WAY WAY WAY MORE DANGEROUS than intersections with traffic signals. Whatever data you’re looking at otherwise is probably not coming from the streets of SF. 4-way stops create ambiguity and uncertainty where there is none with traffic signals. Most every near-miss I experience with vehicles is at 4-way stop intersections. 4-way stops don’t force vehicles to go any slower. 4-way stops are very very easy for distracted drivers to miss, which is why I see drivers blow through them daily in SF, much less so with traffic signals.

  20. YES! In SF we have lots of 4-way stops with poor sight lines, faded signs, no crosswalk markings or stop lines, and they’re often completely ignored by drivers. I’ll prefer a traffic signal anyway because at least they’re maintained properly.

  21. 4-way stops are like any other tool. If overused, they tend to get ignored. That seems to be what happened. If they use 4-way stops every block, then of course drivers will ignore them. It’s very tedious coming to a full stop every 250 feet. The key is if a situation only requires a yield, then you should have a yield sign. If poor lines of sight require a full stop, then and only then should you consider stop signs or traffic signals.

    I really have no problems with traffic signals if they were used very sparingly, as they are in Europe. The problem is when cities put them 250 feet apart. I can’t stand cycling on streets with that many traffic signals. Invariably, unless I run red lights I’m stopping and sitting there for 30 seconds every other block. Even when I run reds, assuming it’s possible, I’m still doing the slow down, look, and go routine every 4 or 5 blocks. This gets really tedious very quickly. Maybe if the streets you prefer to ride on only have traffic signals every 8 or 10 blocks, and you hit them on green most of the time, I can understand your preference. In NYC any street with traffic signals sucks. I try to find streets with mostly 2-way stops giving preference to the main road.

    I’m not a fan of 4-way stops anyway. I think main arteries should mostly have 2-way stops or yields (mostly yields unless lines of sight indicate otherwise) giving preference to the main road. Where main roads intersect each other you should have mostly traffic circles, not signals with complex phases for turns and so on.

    75 years of study show traffic lights make things worse for pedestrians even if your experience differs:

    https://theconversation.com/how-traffic-signals-favour-cars-and-discourage-walking-92675

    https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18072259

    https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2011/04/26/to-get-safer-streets-traffic-lights-and-stop-signs-arent-the-answer/

    https://ggwash.org/view/41374/walk-signals-are-bad-for-walking

  22. Sorry to sound like a broken record but why do we, as Americans, despite having perfect templates to follow with proven results, feel the need to reinvent a the wheel?

    There are countries with much lower rates of automobile caused injuries and fatalities we can look to. They have achieved their numbers through many means – stop signs are not one of them. It has been achieved through the use of totally uncontrolled intersections (yield to the right) on any secondary road.

    I’m all for innovation and new ideas. However this isn’t a new idea and has been rejected by transportation and urban planners who have delivered walkable, safe cites.

  23. If Idaho stops are thought to be desirable it’s because the stop signs really should be yield signs, not that stop signs need a new definition.

  24. Bikes aren’t miniature pedal-powered cars. There’s no reason that a stop sign for drivers needs to also be a stop sign for cyclists.

  25. Cars can stop faster than bicycles, the faster the speed, the more dramatic the difference is. If it’s safe for a cyclist to roll it, the stop sign is not justified.

  26. Stopping speed isn’t the only factor. Cyclists have better visibility, more maneuverability, are significantly smaller and less massive. They are much better equipped than a car to avoid collisions and, if they do collide with something, the consequences are typically far less severe.

  27. Roundabouts are not good for pedestrians or cyclists.

    For pedestrians, cars do not have to stop and will typically look to the direction of oncoming traffic when approaching/entering the roundabout, making them likely to miss pedestrians trying to cross from the other side (right to left in the US). This is identical to the problem with right-on-reds, but worse, since the turns into roundabouts are typically less sharp and thus allow higher speeds. The driver also need not come to a complete stop before making their turn.

    They also make trips on foot take longer, since pedestrians have to walk around the roundabout (unless they’re allowed to cross through the roundabout, but then they must cross free flowing traffic to do so).

    For cyclists, unless the cyclist is going to take the roundabout’s first exit and the bicycle paths on both the entry and exit street connect to the outer edge of the roundabout (right-hand side in the US) then the cyclists will be forced to merge with and/or cross traffic.

  28. You’re not using a roundabout at every intersection. Where main roads intersect each other is their typical use. That might be about every 1/2 mile. Most of the problems you say exist with roundabouts are due to poor driver training and the unfamiliarity of US drivers with them. Cameras can go a long way towards getting drivers to yield to pedestrians before entering the roundabout. You also seem to be confusing roundabout with traffic circle. A roundabout typically has a diameter not much larger than a conventional intersection. That means walking distances are pretty much the same for pedestrians, perhaps a few feet longer if you the math. And like I said, if used where appropriate, a pedestrian walking typical distances is likely to only need to cross one roundabout.

    As for cyclists, I’m not seeing how it’s a problem merging with traffic in the roundabout as this traffic is typically going 10 to 20 mph, depending upon the roundabout diameter. That’s well within the range of typical riding speeds.

  29. I find the reverse is true, especially when you combine reaction time and stopping time. In a motor vehicle, it generally takes a little longer to notice something you need to stop for. Once you do, it takes time to move your foot to the brake. When the brake is depressed there is a delay before the car actually starts slowing down. On a bike your hands are often already on or near the brake levels in normal riding positions. Once you squeeze the brake, you start slowing down immediately. I’ve down some tests, and can consistently stop from 30 mph in about 20 to 25 feet. The biggest rookie mistake cyclists make is using only their rear brake. The rear brake has almost no stopping power. The rear wheel starts to slide once you reach deceleration rates of maybe 0.2g. I use my front brake exclusively. Without doing anything fancy, a cyclist can easily decelerate at 0.5g. If you lower your center of gravity and modulate the front brake so your rear wheel is barely off the ground you can achieve 0.75g or better. At higher speeds air drag also adds significantly to deceleration rates.

  30. I like how the third paragraph is mostly the same sentence repeated twice. I bet this book is an easy read.

    Is this “rule” based on a traffic study conducted in the ’70s? Puh-lease. There is a time and place for stop signs, but as one of the most ignored traffic control devices in this country, putting them in everywhere is hardly warranted.

  31. And traffic signals don’t reduce walkability? I can’t think of anything more antiurban and antipedestrian than telling people to wait at a don’t walk signal at an empty intersection, then giving them jaywalking tickets if they don’t. At least a stop or yield sign in theory gives pedestrians the right-of-way to cross at all times. The poor visibility you mention means the cars stop before inching into crosswalks. That generally means they don’t run over pedestrians.

  32. This story was right about one thing, traffic signals that weren’t warranted (literally, as in the warrants to establish their applicability) do appear when they shouldn’t. I’m also happy to see from many to most of the commenters that all-way stop signs aren’t accepted as the all-purpose replacement solution. Those views are correct from an informed engineering perspective. The “yield” concept works well for motorists and cyclists collectively. Unfortunately, bad practice – and politics – makes it more difficult to go back to doing the right thing.

  33. Yeah, four way stops are kinda bizarre.But the right before left rule applies, as far I know.

    The other big idea missing here is narrowing intersections to make the paths the cars are supposed to follow clearer and more predicable.

  34. Jaywalking tickets lol. Come to Chicago you can cross literally wherever you want. Not uncommon for someone to just walk out to the halfway point and chill in the middle of the road waiting for cars.

  35. I’ll bet 99 out of 100 drivers don’t know that rule. They may have memorized it for the permit test, but it’s soon forgotten. I’ve found confusion reigns supreme at 4-way stops but at least they force drivers to slow down and make eye contact. Uncontrolled intersections would do the same. They would be a much better solution.

  36. The 4-way stops here in SF might as well be 4-way yields, because nearly 0% of people come to a complete stop unless they have to. Almost all motorists and cyclists roll up to a stop sign at a pretty high speed assuming they will be able to roll through at 5-15mph, unless someone else happens to show up first.

  37. Oregon also has a three-way exception, where the top of the T has right of way over the terminating road. It didn’t always have this exception but it changed sometime last decade.

  38. Even if you apply the front brake like you should, you still only have so much contact patch with the pavement, regardless of how much brake you have. As soon as you’re skidding, you might as well be coasting uncontrollably. About the only thing that stops slower than bicycles are motorcycles (without considering things that require a commercial license to drive), not much more contact patch, but more weight than all but the most heavily loaded cargo bikes.

    Even a pickup truck on wet pavement is going to stop faster than a bicycle from the same speed.

  39. More maneuverability depends on speed, and gets comparable to cars pretty quickly, especially at the high end of bicycle speeds.

    Consequences are one thing, but even better is not to put yourself in a position to suffer them in the first place.

  40. “More dangerous” is a concept worth a bit more discussion.

    One possible dilemma is that 4-way stops might increase the number of pedestrians being struck by vehicles but simultaneously decrease the number of serious injuries and death.

    Not that I know this to be the case, but it seems plausible. If that is indeed how reality plays out, we’d be left with deciding between fewer but more serious collisions vs more numerous but less serious collisions.

  41. Stopping distance for cyclists isn’t always that good. Yes, our fingers might be on the brake lever and that means we can start braking quite quickly.

    However, proper weight balance and braking technique is required in order to stop quickly. The front brake can be extremely effective. But this is only true when the rider transfers their weight backward such that they aren’t propelled over the bars when slamming on the front brake. There are a number of reasons why a cyclist might not be able to move their center of mass back. They might be inexperienced, inflexible, have only one hand on the bars, or be carrying something that requires them to be seated.

    Certainly, under optimal conditions, an experienced and unencumbered cyclist with both hands on the bars, can shift their weight rearward and use a ton of front brake to stop in an amazingly short distance. But that shift takes as long as a driver moving their foot to the brake pedal.

    Thus, i don’t think it should be assumed that cyclists are consistently able to come to a stop more quickly than motor vehicles.

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