Many of the interventions that have most radically reconfigured the urban environment are also those which paradoxically have evaded examination and refinement through their ubiquity. On a walk or drive through the city recent interventions such as parking meters, traffic lights, signage and one-way streets remain out of mind due to their prosaic and common nature. While some degree of control is of course necessary, there has been little inquiry into the effects of the present systems and into the possibilities that exist beyond the current reality. The following series of writings on the traffic light seek to detail its history, to examine its effect on social life, and to explore alternatives to the automated device. While almost any such element in the city could have been chosen, the traffic light poses an intriguing subject at the confluence of philosophies of control, technologic determination, and modernization.
For millenia movement through cities and villages was regulated by mutual interest and rooted in a notion of common-law that began to be restricted with the enclosure movements of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Under such a system no traveller had a superior right over another; no person or vehicle had dominance and all spatial claims to the space of the road were recognized to have equal value. Such informal systems did not end with the enclosure movement or industrial revolution, they continued decades into the early twentieth century.
While in many western countries the establishment of the primacy of the automobile led to a drastic shift in custom and space, in developing nations the assimilation of motorized transportation in society has been unable to change customs regarding road use. In this regard, Stanford Gregory’s comparison of the informal driving practices of Egyptians with the linguistics of pidgin languages is fascinating. As a modern western observer, Gregory paints the typical first impression of chaos but is able to “discern an order in the madness,” which he believes is clearly emblematic of “social interaction at a fever pitch” [Gregory, 337]. Such intense systems of concession, predicated in intense interaction, result in the ability to change formation instantaneously and avoid obstacles and stoppages as they occur. These fluid dynamics utilize the whole of human reaction and intellect and exhibit a complex relation of communication and instinct not present in the smartest mechanical control.
In the developed world the industrial revolution initiated an era of technological determinism in which centuries of developments in civilization were rejected or radically reconfigured by an increasing reliance on totalizing rationalism and a preoccupation with efficiency through mechanical means. The technological pace of development was far faster than ever seen in human history. As a result of this pace, nothing other than the easily quantifiable instantaneous result was considered to have value. In the face of the accepted perfection of the machine, humans, especially those of lesser breeding and education, were considered to have little value.
The first traffic signal in human history was installed on December 10th 1868, outside the Houses of Parliament in London. The signals were intended to protect Members of Parliament crossing the busy street. They also helped to afford them a degree of separation from those whose interests they ostensibly represented. Like many traffic control devices, it had its lineage in railroads, who had been using semaphores for several decades. The London signal was a combination of a standard railroad semaphore arms and gas warning lamps but was not automatically controlled. The signal acted as a mechanical appendage of the constable who stood on the traffic island by telegraphing his orders to the mass of carriages, carts, and pedestrians. The signal was a technological aid but not a technological determinant. The London Signal was also an epitomization of the uneasy relationship between human and technological control: less than a month after the signal was installed the gas lamps exploded injuring the police officer “who had thought he was in control” [Pile and Thrift, 262]
and the age of the machine in traffic control had begun.
To be continued in Part II.
1. Gregory Jr, Stanford W. “Auto Traffic in Egypt as a Verdant Grammar.” Social
Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 48, No.4. 1985: 337.
2. City A-Z. Ed. Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift. New York: Routledge, 2000. p. 262.