barnesdance.jpgAll too often, we read (and write) about horrible instances of traffic fatalities when motor vehicles fail to yield to pedestrians with the right of way. There used to be a simple solution to this problem, and it was known as the Barnes Dance. Although NYC traffic commissioner Henry Barnes didn't invent the concept, it became named after him in the 1960s by a City Hall reporter named John Buchanan.

The Barnes Dance involved red lights to vehicular traffic in every direction at an intersection, at which time pedestrians were free to cross in any manner they wanted, including diagonally, without having to fear being hit by a car or truck coming from any direction. They exist in traffic systems around the world.

A major shortcoming of the Barnes Dance is that it slows traffic by including a third element of stopped flow: It stopped East-West traffic, stopped North-South traffic, and then stopped all traffic as pedestrians have the complete right of way. It is certainly a pedestrian-friendly measure, and Barnes was a traffic commissioner who knew that the city was about more than getting cars from point A to point B as quickly as possible. He was Robert Moses' foe, who eventually scuttled plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Critics of the Barnes Dance say that it reduces vehicular capacity of roadways and creates what traffic engineers call lost time. Defenders say that some of that lost time is made up by not having right- or left-turning vehicles back up traffic while waiting for crossing pedestrians who have the right of way. The heart of the issue is how a city defines its priorities: pedestrian safety or motor vehicle capacity.

Mayor Bloomberg is certainly no stranger to innovative or controversial stances when it comes to New York City traffic. Now that the U.S. Department of Transportation has agreed to give $353 million to help NYC investigate congestion pricing, maybe bringing back the Barnes Dance to NYC should be an addendum to PlanNYC.

(Photo of a Barnes Dance pedestrian crossing in Baltimore, MD from the Maryland Historical Society)