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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Those Old-School Traffic Engineers

It has become popular to indict traffic engineers of yesteryear as men so determined to move cars more quickly they disregarded the safety of pedestrians just trying to get across the street alive. This criticism that they were anti-pedestrian is an uncharitable view. It ignores the historical record, unfairly excluding their deliberate attempts to improve pedestrian safety. So in the words of Al Smith: Let's look at the record.

To illustrate this, we don't have to look any further than the language commonly used to criticize the engineers who designed one-way streets decades ago. Consider this example, which is typical of comments made by many observers of streets (who are well intentioned and otherwise often well-informed):
The city's avenues were converted to one-way for one reason only: to give the city's driving elite priority over its walking majority.
There is plenty of ongoing discussion about the merits of one-way streets, which I don't intend to take up in this post. The point here is that the intention attributed to these engineers is just plain wrong. What they intended was precisely to make streets safer for pedestrians, and they conducted studies to support that intention. People may question their wisdom or the unintended consequences of their actions, but we shouldn't assassinate their character.

Perhaps the best example of the concern for pedestrians among leading traffic engineers from that era is Traffic Commissioner Henry Barnes of New York City (who held earlier positions in Flint, Michigan; Denver, Colorado; and Baltimore, Maryland). He was among the proponents of one-way streets and personally implemented conversions in the various cities where he worked. He also popularized the pedestrian-only signal phase; his leadership in using this safety measure gave it the nickname still widely used today: "Barnes Dance." It may seem common-place now (if still underutilized), but it required a real act of courage to implement the original demonstrations.

In his autobiography, Barnes discusses his pioneering work with the exclusive pedestrian phase. He presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Institute of Traffic Engineers, where he announced an aggressive program to install Barnes Dance treatments in downtown Denver upon his return from the meeting:
While the other speakers devoted themselves to traffic flow, parking meters, and all phases of the four-wheeled mechanical monster, I took up the problem of the two-legged human being...  As things stood now, a downtown shopper needed a four-leaf clover, a voodoo charm, and a St. Christopher's medal to make it in one piece from one curbstone to the other. As far as I was concerned - a traffic engineer with Methodist leanings - I didn't think that the Almighty should be bothered with problems which we, ourselves, were capable of solving.
He also describes a tense conversation with the mayor, who was feeling the pressure of a press eager to publish stories about traffic congestion resulting from his scheme to improve pedestrian conditions:
"They roasted you, fried you in gasoline. The Denver Post predicted that the city was about to see the worst traffic jam in its history. Why didn't you tell me about this before you left for Los Angeles?"
"No particular reason, sir. It just seemed logical that we have to take care of the pedestrian just as we have to take care of the motorist."
"One thing you ought to learn about politics, Barnes... [sic] pedestrians don't have organized lobbies. They don't have automobile associations and they don't have the oil companies and they don't have the high blood pressure of the motorist. What's more, they don't have the newspapers."
"But they have the votes, Mr. Mayor."
"That what you think, Barnes. A pure, bona fide, 100-percent pedestrian is either too young to vote or too old to care. The others are just walking to or from their parking spaces."
Ultimately, Barnes was able to convince the mayor to let him launch his plan: "Go ahead with your system, but if it fails, you're finished, kaput. All I'll do is buy you a one-way ticket back to Flint."

When we go back and listen to the actual intentions and recognize the hard work our predecessors invested, it is obvious that these were not people bent on destroying our cities. These engineers did not neglect the needs of pedestrians just to speed up cars a little. We may disagree with their methods and their opinions. Barnes supported the plan for an expressway across Lower Manhattan, for example, which would be hard pressed to find anybody now who thinks it would have been a good idea. He also opposed the concept of congestion pricing, which would put him at odds with many progressive transportation planners and engineers today. With hindsight, we certainly recognize negative effects from some of the projects from that era that they didn't anticipate. It is likely enough they resolved problems we now take for granted, and fail to recognize when we focus on the negative side effects that have taken center stage.

At any rate, it's just not right to say people like Commissioner Barnes destroyed downtowns and shoved pedestrians aside to favor cars when he actually put his career on the line to pioneer pedestrian improvements. Let us hope that those who follow behind us are a little more charitable in their views about the mistakes we are sure to make.

Read More:
The Man with the Red and Green Eyes: The Salty and Outspoken Autobiography of Henry A. Barnes Traffic Commissioner, New York City

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