The Ambiguity of Street Signs: The Corner of Olney and Camp/Brown

Before I get to the case study mentioned in the title of this post, I have to talk about the street naming issue in New England. This post is about a particular intersection in Providence, where Olney Street intersects with Brown Street to the South and Camp Street to the North. If this were a normal part of the country, I could just call this the corner of Olney & Camp, but no, this is New England, where we change the name of the street every few blocks, just to confuse the outtastaytas. The worst offender is Angell Street as it descends into downtown Providence. After crossing Benefit, it becomes Thomas Street (for one block), then Steeple Street (for one block) and finally Exchange Terrace. Well, not really finally because that only lasts about a quarter mile, then it’s Sabin Street. But it’s less than a quarter mile before one finds oneself on Broadway. And then there’s the lack of street signs. Would it kill somebody to put up a street sign that’s large enough to read at more than 20 feet away. It’s always entertaining to see someone with California license plates driving around Providence with an exasperated look, alternately speeding up and slowing down, looking up at the tiny street signs, trying to figure out where the hell they are.

Okay, now that I’ve got my pet peeves out of the way, let’s get back to the corner of Olney & Camp/Brown. Fuck it, I’m just going to call it Olney & Camp. Here it is:

Let’s get closer:

Aaaanndd a little bit closer.

This is a two way stop intersection. Camp Street (running north-south or vertically in the image) has stop signs from both directions. Olney Street, (east-west, or horizontal in the image), is the more major thoroughfare and thus does not have stop signs. Instead, there’s one of these in each direction for the traffic on Olney:

redundant sign is redundant

One must always stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk. I guess people need reminding, since I saw this lady waiting in the crosswalk as many cars went past.

I was going to get all “crossing-guardy” on the the negligent motorists, but there was a break in the traffic just as I arrived on the scene and she was able to cross. I was thus denied an opportunity to exercise my smugness superpowers.

Here’s a photoshop-knockoff-freeware-enhanced version of the satellite view of the intersection in question:

The red lines indicate the location of the stop signs and the yellow lines indicate the locations of the redundant “Stop for Pedestrians in Crosswalk” signs.

Even though most motorists won’t stop for pedestrians here, I have witnessed a curious phenomenon many times. If there are cars stopped at the stop signs, sometimes a motorist on Olney will get confused and stop at the intersection when they do not have a stop sign.

Here’s the view from Olney street facing east:

Corner of Olney & Camp, facing east.

And here’s a view of from Camp Street (actually Brown Street) facing north:

Corner of Olney and Camp, facing north

This phenomenon is more likely to occur when a motorist on Olney is forced to pause in order to turn left onto Camp. Sometimes the driver behind the left-turner decides that they should also stop and let the Camp street drivers through. I’ve also seen a few times where there is an exasperated driver on Camp street, trying to pull out onto Olney, but in that driver’s view, all of the drivers on Olney are completely blowing through a stop sign.

I’m willing to chalk up much of the confusion to motorists’ ignorance of what’s going on around them. But I can also imagine the thought process of these motorists: “People are slowing down, sometimes people even stop to turn left, and there are these strange markings on the street that I’m used to seeing at a four-way stop. Why won’t anyone stop for me?!?!” Well, those strange markings on the street are pedestrian crosswalks, and although every intersection is a pedestrian crosswalk, sometimes the traffic engineers need to re-emphasize this to the motorists. Then they need to stick a “stop for pedestrians” sign for one direction because almost none of those people are actually stopping for the pedestrians. The only thing left to do is put in another sign:

I’ve seen these signs in many parts of the country, but never in Rhode Island, where there are many opportunities for a sign like this to dis-ambiguate an intersection. There’s another example not far away on Thayer Street which I will save for another day.

And now that I’ve been crabby for a while about signage, I’d like to be crabby about something else. It was a nice warm weekend and although the roads were still wet in places, I decided it was time to take out the road bike for the first time since January 5. I was low on work snacks (now that I bike so much, I have to eat almost constantly), so I headed out to Trader Joe’s in Warwick via my usual route: the Washington Secondary Bike Path. Unfortunately, the path was covered in sticks and branches from recent wind storms. On top of that, there were several big patches of ice:

Some of these required dismounting and portaging my bike around the ice. On the way home, I took the regular roads, which were mostly empty. With a nice tail wind, I was able to get up to 30 MPH. It was so good to be back on the road bike. So good that when a motorist honked at me, I just smiled and waved.

7 responses to “The Ambiguity of Street Signs: The Corner of Olney and Camp/Brown

  1. The East Side of Providence has some strange intersections and signage. The worst is a stop sign where you least expect it, or sometimes TWO stop signs, one on each side of the road. Check out Wayland Ave. at Elton St.

  2. This all rings so true! There are so many 4-way stops in town–people are confused when suddenly there isn’t. On Brown and Angell last year a 4-way stop was converted to a 2-way stop. What a recipe for confusion! Given that it’s a big pedestrian (student) crossing, with pedestrian markings on the street as in your intersection, there’s a similar confusion of drivers, exacerbated by the recentish change. Traffic routinely does not stop for pedestrians. And there are drivers who clearly think there is still a four-way stop and barge ahead on Brown, which leads to honking. (My office is on the corner!) If ever an intersection needed your cross-traffic does not stop sign . . .

    • V, you’re right, that intersection is bad in a similar way. I didn’t know that it used to be a 4-way stop, I thought that it was always a confusing mess like that. Given all of the pedestrian traffic there (much more than Olney & Camp/Brown), I’d think that a 4-way stop would be in order just to keep the pedestrians safe. But of course, the traffic designers think that the free flow of cars is more important than the safety of pedestrians. That and they think that a sign that a crosswalk will actually make cars stop there.

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  5. Apparently your comments have been heard and the solution to the intersections problem is to remove the old crosswalk paint and put new crosswalk and stop lines down. As I went through this morning there were about a dozen cones blocking one lane in every direction and bright white zebra patterns.

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