Saturday, July 2, 2022

From Semaphore to Sign: Traffic Control Develops in 1920s

I'm not yet 100% positive on this, but provisionally I want to suggest that the very first non-human traffic control signal in Salem for streets without a rail crossing came in 1922. Here's a sketch of some of the history.

July 1st, 1922 and Cleveland Police Museum

The "semaphores" here might be these right-angled ones like the Cleveland Police Museum shows, with "stop" reading in one direction and "go" reading perpendicularly. The flags could also just be like the stop/slow flip signs construction flaggers use. I hope to find an illustration at some point.

April 23rd, 1921

This was part of the first attempts to regulate and standardize traffic control, which registered here in the early 1920s. The modern tri-color signal head had just been proposed a year earlier in 1921.

But it wasn't until 1937 that Salem actually got such a signal.

August 18th, 1937

While there had been stops for railroad crossings, for intersections wholly separate from rail stop signs themselves seem to have been introduced circa 1926. Council passed what may be the first stop sign ordinance, a "through street ordinance," in December 1925, and the primary reason was to speed up "traffic through the center of the city." Safety at intersections was a secondary consideration. Autoist convenience was the main thing. (See a more general history of the stop sign here.)

January 29th, 1926

The signs used yellow for attention, and more marking seemed necessary. The City added warning paint on the street itself.

February 17th, 1926

August 2nd, 1927

People driving resented stopping and avoided "the stop street districts as much as possible." A reaction and counter-trend to remove stop signs developed.

June 25th, 1929

Compliance has always been a problem. Pieces in the mid-1930s talked about frequency on rolling stops.

November 7th, 1935

April 22nd, 1937

The modern symbolism of the red octagonal sign we take for granted today took time to develop. Yellow had been the main color for the first half of the 20th century, and in 1953 we shifted to red.

September 18th, 1952

September 29th, 1953

The logic of the engine, metal carapace, and speed seems to push inexorably toward expansion. Always unimpeded progress is desired.

From 1937, still our ideal - via NYRB

A retrospective history from 1957 really hits the themes of control and power. The rules are framed as bossing or hen pecking, the driver a beleaguered beta male, unnecessarily and unjustly restricted. With an image of the ideal driver as an alpha, we may come back to this as a cultural-psychological text.

They also discuss the problem of the beg button.

December 2nd, 1957

Here it is in full:

Perhaps nothing in Salem controls more people than the ever present, constant-working light.

Not even wives, mother-in-laws or bosses give the go-ahead or put the stop on people as often as the red and green colored auto traffic lights or the walk-wait pedestrian signals.

Within the city of Salem there are 59 intersections regulated by traffic lights. In these lights are some 1,500 lamps which burn 24 hours a day. Power to keep these lamps burning costs $1,200 each month.

Salem's first traffic signals went up in 1936 on six downtown intersections including ones at Center and Liberty Streets and High and Commercial Streets. These orginal lights also flashed green, amber and red signals but they were mounted on the street corners instead of high over the middle of intersections as now.

Fixed Time Variety

Approximately 90 percent of all Salem traffic lights, including the pedestrian walk-wait signals, are of the fixed time variety.

The other 10 percent, which are mounted on the most heavily congested streets, are regulated by four types of traffic lights. These types vary with the amount of traffic, width and location of streets.

Most complicated of these is the fully actuated type. This type, operating through a complex electronic controller, counts the number of approaching cars, computes the width between each car and sets up the amount of green light necessary. Such a controller operates lights at Liberty and Center Streets.

If the light is already green for approaching cars the controllers also subtracts from the amount of red set for crossing traffic, and vice versa.

These lights and controllers are set off by a detector buried a few hundred feet up the street from the light. This detector sets up a force field which is activated when a car passes through it.

Controller Fixes Time

The fixed time signals have a controller which sets up the same amount of time for each red and green period.

The type of light and controller for use at each intersection is designated by the State Traffic Engineering department.

The time setting on the fixed time signal, to the consternation of motorists who claim that blankety blank red light lasted at least an hour, is never more than 55 seconds long. It is generally much shorter, according to Donald G. Poujade captain of the city communications division.

The pedestrian wait signal is never lighted more than 35 seconds at a time, Poujade says.

The pedestrian walk signal, which some complain switches to wait when they are in the middle of the street, lasts 10 seconds.

The walk sign is timed this way to prevent people from trying to cross the street too close to the time when auto-traffic is about to move across the intersection.

When the walk sign changes, the pedestrian still has more than sufficient time to cross the inter section before the auto-traffic changes.

Wants Buttons Used

"One of our most depressing problems," says Captain Poujade, "is getting pedestrians to push the little buttons which regulate the walk-wait signals at certain corners." These buttons do not change the traffic light but they do assure the walker enough time to cross the street by prolonging the walk period. If he fails to push the button he may not get across the street before the red light changes, Poujade testified.

Price of these complicated electronic mechanisms, which motorists and foot travellers fume over dozens of times each day, ranges from $2,500 to $6,000 per intersection installed.

Five more Salem intersections are due for traffic lights. Some $27,202 has been set aside for the project.

Each year the city budget ear marks $6,100 for maintenance of Salem's many traffic signals. Performance of this maintenance requires a force of several men.

Postscript, July 6th

The autoists strike back! "[T]he autoists cross Commercial and State streets as they durned please and to date no one is shedding tears for the gone but not forgotten semaphore."

July 6th, 1922

1 comment:

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Added a humorous postscript on autoist jaydriving and rebellion.