Should I Stay or Should I Go?

(row one left) The 1918 patent drawing for Cleveland engineer James Hoge’s traffic signal he invented in 1914 that said “stop” and “move.” (row one center) America’s first electric traffic light made its debut at the intersection of E. 105th and Euclid in Cleveland, Ohio on August 5th, 1914. (row one right) In 1923, another Clevelander, Garrett Morgan patented the electric automatic traffic signal which he later sold to General Electric for a whopping $4,000. For perspective, a new Ford in 1920 cost $265 and a loaf of bread cost nine cents. (row two) 1920, at W. 25th Street & the entrance to the Detroit Superior Bridge. Yea, a traffic light there would be a good idea. (row three left) The traffic light might become useless old technology if all the vehicles on the road are self-driving. Here’s VW’s concept of a self-driving car. (row three right) The Smart Car’s autonomous EV just has seats. No steering wheel, accelerator or brakes. (row four left) Jaguar’s self-driving car concept. (row four right) Apple’s self-driving car concept. Kind of looks like their computer mouse. (row five) And by 2030 I’ll have a fleet of these Mercedes self-driving trucks to deliver your PIA (Pain In The @%$) Jobs! Oh, yeah.

The other day I was out for one of my leisurely morning runs, zipping around downtown while most of you were getting ready to be stuck in your cars waiting in traffic (yep, I’m an early bird).  What a difference running at this time of year – while still a bit chilly from the breeze off the lake, I really enjoy the spring sights and smells – flowers in bloom, bright green grass and tiny leaves beginning to pop, and just the positive vibe one gets now that spring has peaked above the horizon here on the north coast.  Heading back to the plant, I came across an intersection, and had to make a “runners” (and walkers) decision – do I push the button (do that silly jog in place thing while looking at my imaginary running time) and wait for the light or try and make it across the street… now at 5 AM you know which course of action I took! It got me to thinking about traffic lights, and how someone solved a PIA (Pain In the @%$) Job back in their day (and still do today).  I did some digging, and found two of our favorite Cleveland engineers, James Hoge, who is credited with testing, patenting and rolling out the first traffic light, some 100 years ago this year and Garret Morgan, who is credited with the three light approach we still use today.  Special thanks to Wikipedia, Washington Post, CityLab, Smithsonian and US Patent office for info and images.  Enjoy, and as Mom always says, “remember to always look both ways before crossing.”

  • Arriving home from a dinner party in 1913, the oil magnate George Harbaugh turned on to Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue, one of Cleveland’s busiest streets, jam packed with automobiles, horse-drawn carriages, bicyclists, trolleys and pedestrians, all believing THEY had the right of way.  Harbaugh didn’t see the streetcar until it smashed into his roadster.
  • In the same year, over 4,000 people were killed in automobile accidents, as Henry Ford, supported by many parts suppliers in the “rustbelt” region, started rolling Model T’s off the assembly line.  The nation’s roads were originally designed to manage people, horses, and trolleys – but not fast-moving cars.
  • A Cleveland engineer named James Hoge had a solution.  Borrowing the red and green signal lights used by railroads and tapping into the electricity used by the streetcar trolley lines, Hoge created the first “municipal traffic control system” – a precursor to the ubiquitous stoplight we still use today.
  • Receiving credit for the “first electric traffic signal” Hoge’s system was based on his design (installed in Cleveland on the corner of Euclid and 105th Street in 1914 and patented 100 years ago in 1918). The traffic signal used the alternating illuminated words “stop” and “move” installed on a single post on each of the four corners of an intersection. The system was wired such that police and fire departments could adjust the rhythm of the lights in case of an emergency.  Said the City’s Public Safety Director at the time, “The public is pleased with the operation, as it makes for greater safety, speeds up traffic, and largely controls pedestrians in their movement across the streets”.
  • The history of managing “crossings” is quite interesting.  In 1860, a British railway manager, John Peake Knight, suggested adapting a railroad method for controlling traffic. Railroads used a semaphore system (still used today) with small arms extending from a pole to indicate whether a train could pass or not. In Knight’s adaptation, semaphores would signal “stop” and “go” during the day, and at night red and green lights would be used. Gas lamps would illuminate the sign at night. A police officer would be stationed next to the signals to operate them.
  • The world’s first traffic “signal” was installed on Dec. 9, 1868, at the intersection of Bridge Street and Great George Street in the London borough of Westminster, near the Houses of Parliament and the Westminster Bridge, according to the BBC. It was a success and Knight predicted more would be installed.  Only one month later, a police officer controlling the signal was badly injured when a leak in a gas main caused one of the lights to explode in his face. (the project was declared a public health hazard and immediately dropped).
  • The first electric traffic light using red and green lights is credited to Lester Farnsworth Wire, a police officer in Salt Lake City, Utah. Wire’s traffic signal resembled a four-sided bird-house mounted on a tall pole. It was placed in the middle of an intersection and was powered by overhead trolley wires. A police officer had to manually switch the direction of the lights.
  • In 1920, William Potts, a Detroit police officer, developed several automatic traffic light systems, including the first three-color signal, which added a yellow “caution” light.
  • In 1923, another Clevelander, Garrett Morgan patented an electric automatic traffic signal. Morgan was the first African-American to own a car in Cleveland (he also invented the gas mask). Morgan’s design used a T-shaped pole unit with three positions. Besides “Stop” and “Go,” the system also first stopped traffic in all directions to give drivers time to stop or get through the intersection. A benefit of Morgan’s design was that it could be produced inexpensively, thus increasing the number of signals that could be installed. (Morgan later sold the rights to his traffic signal to General Electric for $40,000).
  • Pedestrian signals began to be included on traffic signals in the 1930s, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. A “Walk/Don’t Walk” signal was first tested in New York in 1934. Its design used an upright palm to indicate “Stop.”
  • In 1919, a Cleveland teacher, focused on teaching the “new rules of the road”, invented a game to teach children how to recognize traffic signals, and today, kids still play the game on their front lawn … (remember playing “red light, green light”??).  Red, yellow and green imagery is still used on flashcards, lunch room monitoring lights, and even the soccer pitch – (ever get a “yellow or red” card?).
  • Interestingly, during 1920s, there was fierce competition over the legitimate use of streets. Irritated drivers, convinced of the supremacy of the automobile’s claim to the streets, coined an epithet: “jay walker.” A jay at the time was an unsophisticated person; “jay,” the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, was a common insult in American slang.  To jaywalk was to cross the street in an unsafe way, the way a country dweller unfamiliar with city traffic might. The term was also controversial. The New York Times called the term “jaywalker” shameful and “highly shocking.” It rang of a pejorative class term, one used by wealthier drivers to refer to the carless.
  • In spite of initial reluctance to use the term, it stuck, particularly due to advertised anti-jaywalking shame campaigns and the interests of the auto industry. In an April 1920 social campaign in San Francisco, pedestrians were taken off the streets — to the amusement of the onlookers — and lectured in mock courtrooms on the perils of jaywalking. Behind the scenes, the shame tactics were backed by auto interests, like Ford. The Packard Motor Car Co., for instance, entered what would become a prize-winning float in a 1922 Detroit safety parade; the float was a mock tombstone, with an epitaph that read “Erected to the Memory of Mr. J. Walker: He Stepped from the Curb Without Looking.”  People were shamed into crossing at the intersection … fast-forward today – authorities in Shenzhen, China, have set up artificial intelligence-powered CCTV cameras to scan the faces of those who jaywalk at major intersections and display their identities on large public LED screens for all to see.  If that isn’t punishment enough, plans are now in place to link the current system with cellular technology, so offenders will also be sent a text message with a dollar fine as soon as they are caught crossing the road against traffic lights.)
  • John S. Allen, an American inventor, filed one of the earliest patents in 1947 for a dedicated pedestrian traffic signal. Allen’s design had the pedestrian signal mounted at curb level. Allen also proposed that the signals could contain advertisements. In his application, he explained that the words “Stop” and “Go” could be followed by the word “for,” which in turn would be followed by a brand name (gotta love advertising thinkers!)
  • With self-driving cars becoming more of a reality, many improvements to traffic signals (there are about 2 million in use in the US today) are considering the new and upcoming technologies. Researchers at the MIT Senseable City Lab published a scenario where traffic signals are essentially nonexistent. In this potential future, all autonomous cars are in communication with each other in what is known as a “slot-based” intersection in which cars, instead of stopping, automatically adjust their speed to pass through the intersection while maintaining safe distances for other vehicles. This system is flexible and can also be designed to take pedestrians and bicyclists into account. This certainly reminds me of those Blade Runner films!
  • Another innovation called Surtrac out of Pittsburg is from a company called Rapid Flow Technologies. In pilot tests underway since 2012, the traffic signals use artificial intelligence to adapt to changing traffic conditions. The company says travel times have been reduced by more than 25 percent and wait times at red lights down an average of about 40 percent decreasing emissions. The system takes into account second-by-second real-time conditions and is scalable to larger areas since each intersection makes its own decisions instead of a single, central system.
  • Drivers traveling the Alameda corridor in Albuquerque, NM are finding their commute time reduced on average 5 to 6 minutes shorter in each direction thanks to the completion of the second phase of the Alameda Boulevard Adaptive Signal Project. Using cameras and “a bit of artificial intelligence,” the cameras monitor the traffic and read real-time traffic patterns, and then adjust the traffic lights accordingly. The goal is to keep traffic moving so motorists spend less time sitting at red lights and more time driving through the green lights.
  • Auto makers and regulators believe self-driving vehicles have the potential to be so transformative, once driverless cars are on the roads in large numbers, experts believe there will be no need at all for traffic lights, as cars will communicate with one another and intuitively know what’s a safe speed to travel based on traffic and road conditions. Human errors such as failing to stop at a stop sign or mistakenly driving through a red light will become nonissues. According to Brandon Schoettle, a researcher at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute who studies autonomous driving, “Self-driving vehicles are constantly monitoring the roads, and they’re never confused, or distracted.  There are, of course, a huge number of unknowns,” says Schoettle, who predicts it could be a decade before self-driving vehicles are available for sale and an additional 20 to 30 years before most drivers own them.
  • It remains to be seen whether the safety benefits will pan out as expected and when they will begin. Researchers say it depends on how quickly driverless technology evolves, how long it takes the public to embrace self-driving cars and what happens in when we actually take away the crossing systems, especially when autonomous cars and those driven by humans are sharing the roads. We certainly can’t forget about the bikes or Jaywalkers!  Finally, I still want to be able to drive my car!

We’ll be back Monday inventing new ways to deliver all of your PIA (Pain In the @%$) Jobs™

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