Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Attention careless drivers

Three longtime sentinels: the Scottish Rite Temple (left), the St. Regis apartment hotel (right) and the stately traffic signal.

Count me among folks who don't care for the city's recent switch from traffic lights to stop signs at several intersections across town.  The ones on boulevards are especially unlikeable. Timid souls seem challenged by a four-way stop with multiple lanes. And I've seen clueless or distracted or just plain brazen drivers cruise through these stop signs at 35 miles per hour.

So I find it somewhat soothing to know this type of mayhem has a venerable past in Kansas City. The ancient, charming traffic light on a pedestal at Linwood and Paseo is a kind of monument to it.

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In the beginning, driving was a laissez-faire activity: You took life and steering wheel in your hands on pretty much every outing. Speed limits were just suggestions, courtesy a parlor virtue. Caution was in the eye of the beholder.  Automobiles and confusion multiplied, and it was every man (or occasional woman driver) for himself. The boulevard intersection of Paseo and Linwood became particularly notorious for careless driving.

 Linwood and Paseo, out of control, in 1916 ...

That's why, in 1921, the city made this the first controlled intersection in town. Workmen built a wooden platform, two-feet high, topped with a four-sided semaphore with red and green arms, white letters spelling STOP and GO. During rush hours a cop would stand on the platform and rotate the signal as needed. The whole thing came with basic instructions, published in the Star:

Motorists are requested to keep in the right line or line nearest the curb if making a right turn or going straight ahead. If turning to the left, draw into the left line or inside line, one block from the intersection. Motorists making the left turn will turn on the near side of the platform and not around it, during the hours the traffic officer is on duty. When no officer is on duty, if the platform remains on the street, the long left-hand turn around the platform should be made.

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In time, traffic control embraced electricity. One popular design for signals featured a headstone-shaped device with a lighted drum on top flashing DANGER or STOP at bridges and intersections. (One included its own explanatory inscription: FOR PUBLIC SAFETY/WHY TAKE A CHANCE?)

A four-sided design arrived here in 1924 after a successful run on Fifth Avenue in New York. It used lights in three colors – red, green and amber, the latter serving to warn drivers that either the red or the green was about to change. Linwood and Paseo got one of these signals on trial in 1927, mounted on a pole inside a circle.

When careless motorists battered similar poles in other locations around town, designers drew up a substantial tapered-concrete pedestal that could fight back.  This type, in 1931, came to support the permanent stone-and-bronze signal at Linwood and Paseo, after the park board chose it as a proper structure for the junction of two grand boulevards. Its designer was Edward Buehler Delk, the architect behind the Country Club Plaza and the Starlight Theatre.

... and controlled, in 1932.  Both photos courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Not that the confusion disappeared. The intersection remained one of the worst for accidents into the 1960s. The city's traffic director then admitted his department would prefer the old signal be demolished, but nearby residents wouldn't hear of it.  A decade later the light went into semi-retirement as strictly a left-turn signal.

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These days I slow down to catch a red light at Paseo and Linwood, just to stop and admire the longevity and beauty of an antique traffic signal. And to smile at the words of one of those pioneering traffic engineers of the 1920s.

"This system of signaling is not necessary for the careful motorist," the guy said. "It is to compel the attention of careless drivers."

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