Crosswalk Signals As Message

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I’ve been thinking about Pittsburgh crosswalk signals for various other class projects. How do these banal technologies frame our understanding of the world? Friedrich Kittler writes, “…we knew nothing about our senses until media provided models and metaphors” (34, Optical Media). Crosswalk signals encourage us to think of traffic flow as rectilinear and regulated. First the cars go. Then the pedestrians go. Then the cars go. Then the pedestrians go. It seems like a strange failure of their own making when crosswalks do not follow these patterns, leading to frustration. If a crosswalk signal allows the cars to move in both directions without allowing us to walk, we become frustrated, confused, prone to think the signal is malfunctioning or improperly programmed. We will dart into traffic. Or if the signal holds off pedestrians until they are allowed to walk in all directions at once (as at the intersection of S. Negley Ave & Centre Ave), we are apprehensive initially about crossing diagonally, as the traffic light system implies a rectilinear order (we cross one street, and then we cross the other).

However, we are likely to find that traffic signals developed as “incentive[s] and response[s] within a phase of general social transformation” (11, “The Technology and the Society”: Television) and are not solely technological forces creating meaning. The first street light was designed by an American police office as the roads were becoming busier with motorized cars (“Red Light, Green Light”: The Design Observer). Without them, traffic would be slow and inefficient. But more notably, it would be dangerous for drivers and pedestrians. As Badon writes, “the traffic light reduced the workload of policemen by eliminating the dangerous job of controlling busy intersections.” And so it was the desire for safer streets and a reduced workload that led that police office to develop the technology.

An early hybrid crosswalk signal/traffic light designed by Dr. John Harriss (“Where was the First Walk/Don’t Walk Sign Installed?”: Federal Highway Administration)

The development of crosswalk signals themselves were a part of government efforts to reduce traffic fatalities (“Where was the First Walk/Don’t Walk Sign Installed?”: Federal Highway Administration). Raymond Williams writes, disputing technological determinism, that “it is especially a characteristic of the communication systems that all were foreseen — not in utopian but in technical ways — before the crucial components of the developed systems had been discovered and refined” (12, “The Technology and the Society”: Television). The traffic light existed prior to the crosswalk signal. The real work of the signal was in perfecting the pattern. From an article in 1934:

“Under the old control, we had to wait, first on one foot and then on the other, for the long period of the red light to expire. Then we were allowed a long period of green. We were subject to the interference of turning vehicles, and sometimes, if we did not complete our crossing on the green, we were caught in the middle of traffic, some of which might have been “jumping” the amber.” (Where was the First Walk/Don’t Walk Sign Installed?”: Federal Highway Administration

Clearly, the technology had to be formed to social practice. Additionally, in 1937, the National Safety Council’s Committee reported that “…cities in different parts of the country have had varying successes with the regulation of pedestrian traffic by Stop and Go signals. Some cities have had not only legal requirements but a large measure of voluntary obedience, and in such sections the actual control of pedestrian traffic by signals is usually successful. In other cities general opinion is that such control is not practical and cannot be imposed upon pedestrians.” The technology does not impart its values evenly.

As Raymond Williams writes about in regards to violence and television, what we have is not a contradiction or problem with the medium/message communicated by the technology, but instead a “contradiction within the societal system itself” (126, “Effects of the Technology and its Uses”: Television). In this case, the contradiction is one that the technology does not adequately address. We want a mechanism in place to require cars to regularly and frequently yield to us (as pedestrians) when traffic is heavy but when traffic is light we want to ignore this system and cross at our leisure. The United States’ jaywalking laws reflect this with “statutes generally reflect[ing] the Uniform Vehicle Code in requiring drivers to yield the right of way to pedestrians at crosswalks” ( Crosswalk signals, on the other hand, do not reflect this. They remain constant regardless of traffic flow.

An innovative road traffic engineer, Hans Monderman, spearheaded an initiative in traffic planning to remove signals and curves that directed and divided cars and pedestrians. According to Monderman, “this egalitarian approach to traffic engineering promotes personal initiative and negotiation rather than mere rule following.” (85, “Signing Off”: Urbanite Magazine) But, in a way, this brings us back to Kittler. Shouldn’t this removal of technology bring us back to the state that led to the development of the technology originally? If not having traffic signals is a better way of managing traffic and pedestrian patterns, why was there the drive to invent them in the first place? Now, though, we have internalized the “message” of the traffic lights. For, as McLuhan writes, “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (8, Understanding Media). Once we have absorbed the pattern of the traffic signal, the rectilinear walking pattern, the trade-off of flow, then we no longer need the technology at all.