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Blocking the box: When green doesn't mean go

The painted intersection at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in New York, designed to keep drivers from blocking perpendicular traffic from blocking the way when the light turns red. (1996 file photo)

Adam Nadel/AP Photo

Robin Gregory, driving daily from his downtown Toronto home to destinations across the GTA, is constantly being held up by cars clogging an intersection after the traffic signal has turned from green to red.

"Pretty much every intersection along Spadina [Ave., in Toronto], down toward the Gardiner, you'll see people taking any opportunity to shave 30 seconds off their commute. They just sit there in the way, staring straight ahead," says Gregory, a brewery sales rep. "It's not tourists. They know what they're doing. It's disrespectful and selfish."

It's the very definition of gridlock, with vehicles backing up in two or three directions and horns bleeping out expletives. New York cracked down on intersection-blockers years ago. In 1999, police issued 6,552 tickets in a three-day span, according to the New York Times. Today, many intersections are painted in an X-pattern to warn drivers against the transgression.

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In 2001, Toronto drivers saw four downtown intersections painted with a yellow grid design and in one week that summer, a police enforcement blitz handed out 340 tickets for gridlock offences. Should Toronto now follow New York's lead, to ease the constipation?

The paint has since worn away. Stephen Buckley, the city's general manager of Transportation Services, says the markings caused confusion for drivers, resulting in them blocking pedestrian crossings. "Maintenance and general non-compliance were also issues," says Buckley.

Optimism or ignorance leads drivers into an intersection when there's no guarantee of getting out in time. They end up stranded, soon to be blocking drivers trying to travel perpendicularly.

In February, the city's fine for failing to clear intersections nearly tripled, from $40 to $115, and Transportation Services recommended last October that uniformed personnel be stationed at intersections. The intended effect would be to raise awareness and be a visible presence to make drivers think twice before entering suspect intersections. Whether this would be enough to keep drivers from "blocking the box" won't be apparent for some time. Buckley says he hopes approval for the program comes with the 2015 budget.

Constable Clinton Stibbe, a Toronto Police Service spokesman, says the "failure to clear" infractions don't receive as much enforcement attention as transgressions like speeding or the running of red lights and stop signs. By the nature of the problem, speeds are low, as are the threats to public safety. Stibbe declined to provide numbers of tickets issued, but confirmed that officers are not instructed to monitor specific intersections.

Meantime, Gregory is resigned to telling himself that, sometimes, green doesn't mean go. "I honk sometimes," he says. "But mostly I've come to accept it."

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