GENESEO — Each day, the Village of Geneseo sees considerable vehicle traffic, from both the permanent population of nearly 8,000 and the numerous students residing at the local college. Yet it is home to only a couple sets of three-color traffic lights — with just one in the village center — and it has not added any more in decades.
Some suggest no more have been installed because of the cost involved. But maintaining appearances might also be a factor.
“Parts of the village are in a designated historical area,” Geneseo Police Chief Eric Osganian said. “It is beneficial not to clutter up the historical area.”
With myriad less-than-experienced drivers from the college motoring around, the notion that additional traffic lights have been refused because they harm a desired look might seem disconcerting, especially with the village’s unique layout providing unusual driving challenges. Rarely does a neighborhood have a large monument in the middle of one of its thoroughfares, for example.
“Not having more traffic lights is extremely hazardous to individuals’ well-being,” John Arnold, a 27-year-old Geneseo resident and local college student, said. “That runs the risk of people getting into an accident, especially on Main Street.”
But most incidents don’t occur where they might be expected — not at the confusing, three-way intersection of Main, Court and North streets, near the courthouse; or at the crossing of Center and Main streets, where a bronze bear on a pillar in a circular pool of water runs interference; or where Center and South streets meet, near the Geneseo Fire Department.
“Surprisingly, we do not take a lot of accidents at these intersections,” Osganian said. “Most of our accidents in the village are rear-end collisions on Route 20A.”
Parking lot accidents are also common. According to Osganian, the village had 170 accident reports in 2012 and 122 in 2013, with about 50 so far in 2014. Only two of those 300-plus incidents occurred at the intersection of Court, Main and North streets and three happened at the junction of Center and South streets.
From 1975 to 2011, Geneseo — including both the town and village — had 33 fatal car accidents. 116 people were involved, of whom 39 died, according to City-Data.com.
Statistically, those numbers are on the low end. Geneseo was below the New York average in fatal car crashes, total fatalities, and persons involved, per 100,000 people, in that time span. And deadly car accidents at intersections in the village are so rare that they are statistically insignificant.
The question, then, perhaps becomes: Is the possibility of saving a life when fatalities are admittedly quite rare — and preventing families and friends from destructive heartbreak — worth the monetary and manpower costs involved in adding new traffic signals? The emotional response might be “yes,” but the choice is not so cut-and-dry.
Financially speaking, new signals are not cheap. According to David Goehring, a regional traffic controller for the New York State Department of Transportation, a new traffic light costs around $100,000.
But the choice to install a traffic signal, perhaps surprisingly, isn’t about money.
“When we look to put in a traffic signal, the cost of the traffic signal does not enter into the decision,” he said. “Rather, whether the light will improve traffic conditions is the deciding factor. The traffic signal [decision] is really based upon the merits and the balance of the benefits and the ‘disbenefits’ of the signal.”
Numerous points are considered, including accident history, traffic volumes, and visibility conditions of the area. If studies suggest a new traffic signal will not improve conditions, a new one will not be installed.
Traffic-safety experts do agree that lights can reduce certain types of accidents, notably broadside collisions, and control the movement of traffic — when properly placed.
Indeed, traffic signals are not a panacea to vehicle accidents. They can even cause more crashes — especially rear-end collisions, according to Goehring — than they prevent, if ill- or unnecessarily-placed. In fact, the city of Philadelphia saw a decline in automobile collisions after removing nearly 200 unwarranted lights in the 1970s and 1980s, according to a 2005 report by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program.
Improperly placed signals can also make driving less efficient.
“The more traffic control devices you place on the roadway,” Osganian said, “the more you disrupt the flow of traffic.”
That leads to impatient drivers, red-light runners, and more of what the lights are installed to prevent: accidents.
Though the village has not recently added any new traffic lights to complement the two sets of signals it already has — at the intersections of Main and South streets and Reservoir Road and Route 20A — traffic and circulation improvement studies of the area have been performed over the years, according to Livingston County Planning Director Angela Ellis.
One study, Alternatives to Improve Circulation, Parking, Safety and Aesthetics, released in November 2009, supports Osganian’s belief that rear-end collisions are the most common type of crash in the village.
“These can occur at intersections with signal changes or sudden stops,” the report said.
A survey, asking residents to pinpoint traffic and safety issues in the village, was also performed. While traffic signals — or the lack thereof — received some attention, other concerns garnered significant consideration as well.
Visibility was a hot issue, with cars parked in the streets, bothersome street angles and steep slopes causing problems. Jaywalkers were mentioned. Some respondents even suggested removing some of the lights — like the blinking yellow signal at the Main-Court-North junction — already installed.
“I don’t remember ever hearing of a resident requesting a traffic light on an inner street intersection,” Osganian said. “There does not seem to be a need or demand for any.”
And alternatives to traffic lights do exist. “Sometimes traffic lights seem like an obvious choice,” said Ellis. “But there are other improvements that can also improve safety.”
All-way stops and roundabouts have been implemented in other jurisdictions, with success. In 2012, the town of Hopewell, N.Y. — near Canandaigua — added two roundabouts, while the city of Rochester finished installing one at the junction of East Broad, Pitkin and Chestnut streets in early 2013.
The village center has just one set of traffic signals. And according to officials, perhaps that’s all it needs. “Most of the interior streets of the village would not need a traffic light,” Osganian said. “Stop signs have worked well as a traffic-control device on the inner streets.”