Stoplight Urbanism Pt.II: The current condition

Today I will continue with the second part of my essay on the effect of traffic control on urbanism and my modest anarchic proposal for change.

To recap the first part:

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.
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. 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.

At the dawn of the twentieth century urban areas exploded with growth as millions abandoned rural lives to seek fortune in the industrialized cities of the world. With the overwhelming concentration of people in small geographic areas, the sixty years spanning the years between 1890 and 1950 would see an obsession with congestion as the gravest threat to cities. In some cases, although technological innovations had allowed such congestion to occur, technology was again proposed as the answer. Thomas Edison predicted the wide-scale adoption of automobiles would “so relieve traffic as to make Manhattan Island resemble the ‘The Deserted Village’” [Fogelson, 253]. Others sought less sweeping measures to fight congestion through regulation and traffic control.

Today the concept of right of way is so ingrained in our daily lives that it is shocking to learn that this is a construct of the past century. Initially such rights were based on arbitrary designations that varied erratically between municipalities. In a parochial age each municipality prescribing right of way to either North/South or East/West traffic [Todd, 10] may have been a plausible solution. However over twenty five years after the adoption of standard time in a society of increasing mobility, such an answer was destined to be unsuccessful. The interim solution came in a custom borrowed from France in which vehicles defer to the vehicle on their right. Such a system still relies on informal means and becomes increasingly difficult when applied to the major intersections being constructed as part of ambitious street widening projects. By the 1920’s the current system of rights of way predicated on a deference of minor roads to major roads was in firmly in place. Since that time the only alteration has been the use of traffic light systems weighted to give precedence to the major thoroughfare.

"Only" by BrittneyBush on Flickr

The first modern traffic light was deployed in Salt Lake City in 1912 [Wikipedia, 1]. Although a direct refinement of the London Signal of 1868, the traffic light would undergo a decade of nearly continuous refinement in form and operation until the first interconnected automatic three color traffic lights were installed in Houston.

The traffic lights that we encounter every day are similar to the 1922 Houston traffic lights, with a small degree of technological refinement. Interestingly, several of the most prevalent innovations are designed to subvert the very concept of a signalling system. Most common are the walk light buttons that advance the traffic light cycle to allow pedestrians to cross in a timely manner. Another common subversion is the actuated signal in which embedded sensors in the pavement detect the weight of a waiting vehicle and override arterial right of way at non-peak times. More controversial are devices that allow emergency vehicles to bypass red lights by emitting an infrared signal; predictably such devices were manufactured and sold to general consumers and, as a result, federal law now criminalizes the possession of such devices for consumer use.

Traffic management center in the Twin Cities. Image from Minnesota DOT

The most advanced systems of traffic lights are coordinated control systems that utilize computers to enable motorists on major thoroughfares to travel miles without encountering lights by adjusting for predicted speed or, in the most advanced systems, average speed as detected by numerous embedded sensors. These systems “signal the dream of the liberal state ... They work best when no one notices them, and when regulation becomes cooperation and facilitation”[Pile, 263]. One subset of such systems are centrally controlled systems (as made famous by the original Italian Job) where data and video are directed to command centers that control entire street networks throughout the city.

While refinements continue to advance the technology of traffic signalling, safety has not improved. More than three decades after the adoption of the traffic light there were still over ten traffic fatalities for every murder [Ross, 231] and this gap continued to widen, despite safer automotive design. Traffic signals are rendered unsafe by human psychology. Traffic light systems “make drivers go fast and keep close behind to the vehicle in front for fear of missing the green light” and furthermore cause drivers to cross intersections “with their eyes up in the air rather than on the road” [Todd, 11] The coordinated control systems previously discussed can actually encourage reckless driving by causing “drivers [to] use excessive speed in order to ‘make’ as many lights as possible” [Wikipedia, 10]. Additionally such systems have become the norm and are frequently demanded by residents leading to the chronic under-funding of local transportation agencies. In a recent survey “68 percent said they have... no documented management plan for their traffic signal operation” [U.S. Traffic Signals get Poor Grades, 1] resulting in the typically poor calibration of signals.

Traffic lights also contribute to more dangerous streets by altering the psychological and sociological relationships of drivers to their surroundings. The traffic light is responsible in large part for an abnormal conditioning of motorists. Traffic lights alter the standard control relationships seen in society for, once the visible police officer is replaced by the unseeing mechanical device, the “guilt and ... recognition of the gap between our actions and those of the ideal citizen” [Pile, 263] is lessened by proxy. This condition has recently given rise to the use of red-light cameras to remind motorists that traffic lights have all the authority and power of a live police officer. Another, more dangerous, conditioning resulting from acclamation to traffic lights is complacency. Drivers develop expectations for operating within the current system and that deprives them of the necessity to be aware.

"Playing in Traffic" by Geognerd on Flickr

It is assumed that merely following the rules should keep them safe. Of course when externalities inevitably arise drivers are ill-prepared to adapt.

Malfunctioning traffic light causes mayhem in Russia.

This complacency can be seen in the vast rise of alternative motoring activities such as grooming, eating, and cellular phone use while driving. While these behaviors are a result of expectations conditioned by the system, another problem lies in the conditioning of actions. In those rare occasions, such as power failures, when drivers must actively negotiate passage they are not confident in their abilities to physically negotiate and communicate with other drivers.

A second problematic result of modern traffic control should be plainly evident to anyone who has walked, cycled or run on public streets: The controlled situation of driving has resulted in a systemic aggrandizement of the driver over other forms of transportation. Modern right-of-way rules, one-way streets and traffic lights encourage “motorists to travel at high speed on urban arterial roads and intersections without looking for opposing traffic” [Todd, 11]. The physical and often psychological separation of thoroughfares into vehicular roads and pedestrian walkways or bicycle paths has caused the “driver to see that he or she has priority. And the child who forgets for a moment ... is a child in the wrong place” [Baker 2004, 2]. The conditioning leads to inadvertent or intentional arrogance on the part of drivers and, at its worst, is manifested in the much discussed phenomena of road rage.

The aggrandizement of the driver is mirrored in society at large as illegal traffic acts are “not stigmatized by the public as criminal” [Ross, 241] except in extreme cases of negligence and the majority of traffic crimes receive much more lenient sentencing than other categories such as drug or weapons offences. This situation has been examined through a Marxist lens by some who observe that because “the law is made and operated in the interests of the well-to-do,” then driving offenses such as speeding “are not ordinarily thought to ‘count’ as crimes” [Ross, 235].

In part III I will examine alternatives to structured traffic control and theorize an urbanism without stoplights.

Works Cited:

1. Baker, Linda. “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” 25 October 2007. .

2. Fogelson, Robert M. Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001. p, 253

3. “Report: U.S. Traffic Signals Get Poor Grades”. 25 October 2007. .

4. Ross, H. Lawrence. "Traffic Law Violation: A Folk Crime." Social Problems, Vol. 8. 1960-1961: 231-241.

5. Todd, Kenneth. “Traffic Control: An Exercise in Self-Doubt.” Regulation. Fall 2004: 10.

6. “Traffic Light”. 10 October 2007. Wikipedia. .

7. City A-Z: Urban Fragments. Ed. Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift. New York: Routledge, 2000. p. 263.

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