San Francisco Stop-Sign Problem

Following is a letter that was sent to the editors of both San Francisco daily papers and to the Board of Supervisors in July 1997.

"Regarding a Serious Policy Problem: The Board of Supervisors may be the cause of public disrespect for traffic regulations.

Recent media reports indicate that some city supervisors are focusing attention on drivers who ignore red lights. Red-light running seems to be a nationwide problem. However, there is a related problem, for which San Francisco supervisors may have a direct responsibility.

We have a growing number of stop signs in San Francisco. Therefore, it takes longer and longer to drive anywhere in the city. The number of stop signs has been growing at a steady pace for forty years, regardless of population or traffic.

Proliferating stop signs is a gnawing problem that is currently ignored. Stop signs are designed to slow traffic. As the length of time to travel within the city grows, the patience of drivers declines. The willingness to obey traffic regulations probably declines also.

Here is the data: In 1957, when stop-sign installation was turned over to the city (it was formerly managed by the California State Automobile Association), there were 1,786 stop signs in San Francisco. That number has doubled twice in forty years to 9,603 stop signs at the beginning of 1997. This is an increase in stop signs of 4 percent per year. The number of intersections, however, is the same as it was in 1957. In the meantime, the population of San Francisco has declined from 740,000 to 730,000. The number of automobiles has grown from 170,000 to 220,000, a growth rate of a .5 percent per year. The average urban automobile is shorter than it was in 1957. Much shorter. The number of stop signs has far out paced the number of cars.

As the number of stop signs increases, traffic slows and drivers become more and more impatient. Is there a way to address this issue?

Ultimately, I hope there will be a supervisor's study of the necessary number of stop signs in San Francisco. With an upper limit established, the law should require that a new sign can go up only if an old sign comes down. "

Michael Phillips, 1997

Note: The data on stop signs for 1957 was tabulated by me at the Traffic Sign Office. The population and automobile data were taken from the U.S. Census.


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