Five blocks. That’s how far I watched a car cruise the wrong way down a one-way street last week. As it cruised past the ACE office building, a handful of speculations jumped to mind about the driver: drunk… old and senile… late for work and taking an unorthodox shortcut…

But my reactionary assumptions quickly bowed to a less obvious, more probable idea of why this person was heading the wrong way today: Signage. Poor signage, to be exact.

Throughout San Diego, and every single city across the country, drivers unknowingly find themselves heading the wrong way down even some of the most popular streets in town.

Innocuous a mistake though it may be, it often ends fatally when drivers try to enter a freeway via the offramp. This is a tragic scenario, but not uncommon and by no means limited to high-speed egresses. When drivers find themselves face-to-face with another set of headlights, or an unexpected pedestrian, quite often they’re totally clueless to their wrong turn.

Luckily, the incident I witnessed last week ended safe and happy (if somewhat humiliating) for the driver. My guess is he or she exited a nearby facility with confusing or unclear markings indicating that Ash is a one-way street. To the driver’s defense, Downtown San Diego can be a frustrating grid of one ways, no U-turns, abrupt dead ends, peculiar forks, and sudden freeway ramps.

From traffic signs to mobility grids to navigation technology, for all their potential in creating a seamless mobility system, they seem to just as often make it confusing (and dangerous) to make your way around town. It’s a problem that’s holding our cities back, and one we need to address in order to move forward.

Signs Of What’s To Come?

Confusing navigation isn’t restricted to urban centers. Lately, awareness has arisen about lacking road signage along a particularly winding stretch of road in north San Diego county. The serpentine West Lilac Road in Valley Center, east of Oceanside, is an ambush for many truck drivers, whose rigs aren’t able to manage the route’s sharp twists and turns.

But when nearby freeways are heavily congested, GPSs will automatically reroute truckers and other motorists off the 15 and onto the backroads. To the dismay of many, Lilac Road doesn’t have clear and appropriately marked signage deterring truck drivers from making the treacherous route.

Lisa H., a local truck driver, told the San Diego Reader yesterday that, “The driver should not have even been there… That is not a through route for a tractor with a 53-foot trailer… I wouldn’t take one down there… the corners are much too tight to make it through without going off the side, [as happened].”

The same driver later comments that taking Lilac Road to detour around traffic, “would be an easy mistake to make.”

However, the fact of the matter is, there’s no reason seasoned truckers (or first-time U-Haul renters, for that matter) should ever make such mistakes.

Whether it’s rural West Lilac Road, downtown Ash Street, or the street you’ll take to or from work today, an “easy mistake” is no excuse; it’s an indication of a serious need to renovate our current mobility systems.

Instead of exclusively concentrating on the smart technology that will one day connect cars of tomorrow, we should be upgrading the systems in place to appropriately navigate and notify the vehicles (and the drivers) on our roads today.

What We Can Do Today To Improve Tomorrow

With so much hype and emphasis on driverless cars, we stand to overlook the most basic fundamentals. Such fundamentals may be as simple as ensuring that street signage is clear and visible or that traffic flow is being actively monitored with optical sensors.

In 2013 in Downtown Toronto, mobility planners implemented Multiagent Reinforcement Learning for Integrated Network of Adaptive Traffic Signal Controllers (MARLIN-ATSC) to learn about traffic patterns in high-use intersections. The insights allowed for controllers to reduce intersection delays 27-39% and reduce total travel times 15-26%. All of this before autonomous vehicles were such a hot topic.

So why not focus on what matters to cities and their civilians today? It’s critical if we’re going to take the best steps, the smoothest paths to Tomorrowland.

But, if we continue to avoid these issues, focusing instead on systems that aren’t even close to being implementable, we run the very real risk of going in the wrong direction—not just on the road, but in life.

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