Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Create & Innovate Plus Home Made Gifts & Games

article number 602
article date 10-20-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
New Technology Conquers Traffic Jams . . . Well, Not Quite, New York City, 1921
by Herbert Asbury and Joseph Brinker

From the January 1921 issue of ‘Popular Science Monthly’

* * *.

THE traffic problems of New York city, perhaps the most difficult and complex of any city in the world, and assuredly of any city in the United States, are not solved by a group of heavy-browed experts gathered in solemn conference around piles of maps and charts and blueprints.

They are solved by one man, a tall, broad-shouldered, keen-eyed man who stands hour after hour, looking out of a window of his office upon the maelstrom of vehicles and pedestrians that is Forty-second street and Fifth avenue, thinking traffic and seeing nothing but traffic until suddenly an idea leaps full-fledged into his brain, and then, presto!

New traffic rules are promulgated and New York city takes one more step toward the traffic millennium when there will be no accidents and when motor vehicles and pedestrians will move east and west and north and south in perfect peace and harmony.

New York’s Special Traffic Deputy

This man is Dr. John A. Harriss, Special Deputy Police Commissioner for Traffic. It is a big job with a big title, but for the long hours he puts in and the hard work he does Dr. Harriss receives probably the smallest pay of any man in the world. He receives exactly nothing or even less than that, because, being an extremely wealthy man, he never asks the city to pay for putting his new traffic ideas into effect until he is certain that they will be successful.

He pays out of his own pocket whatever expenses are incurred in giving them a thorough test, and then, if they justify it in the opinion of the Police Commissioner and the other city officials, the municipal authorities take hold and continue the schemes.

The most that Dr. Harriss ever gets out of his work is a letter of thanks from his boss - that and the knowledge that he has contributed to the safety and the happiness of some millions of his fellow citizens. And that in itself, of course, is no mean reward.

Between five and six o’clock in the evening approximately 4500 vehicles pass the corner of Fifth avenue and Forty-second street. If the vehicles going in both directions were evenly divided, it would mean that 2250 vehicles would go north and 2250 vehicles south on Fifth avenue within the hour.

Expressed in minutes instead of hours, thirty-seven vehicles pass the corner traveling north every minute and an equal number traveling south. Since Fifth avenue is wide enough for only three lines of traffic in each direction simultaneously, thirteen vehicles, three abreast, thirty-seven or thirty-nine in all, pass the corner every minute in each direction.

Fifth Avenue in a Rush Hour

Try to form a mental picture of thirty-seven vehicles passing the corner every minute going north and thirty-seven more going south simultaneously. Then consider that there are almost half as many vehicles waiting to cross this heavy stream of traffic in order to get from one side of Fifth avenue to the other, and the traffic jam becomes more realistic.

Consider, too, the thousands of pedestrians waiting to cross from one corner to the other. Mix these up with the north- and south-bound vehicles and those bound east and west, and you have some idea of conditions at the most congested vehicular corner in the world.

Picture also the pedestrians trying to worm their way through the streams of vehicles, some of them the costliest of limousines, moving ahead less than a foot apart, and you get a still better picture of the traffic jam that used to occur every night at that famous corner.

We say “used to occur,” for this condition has been entirely changed.

Dr. John A. Harriss, New York’s millionaire Special Deputy for Traffic, who has spent many years in a study of New York’s peculiar traffic problems, and who installed the present block traffic system on Fifth avenue at a personal expense of twenty thousand dollars.

Many of us remember the curious little platforms surmounted by lampposts—safety isles, they were called—that used to dot Fifth avenue at various corners from Forty-second street north.

It was Dr. Harriss who investigated and found that a great many accidents were caused by the safety isles becoming overcrowded with pedestrians, some of whom were pushed off into the paths of automobiles. He abolished them, had them destroyed, and the records of the Police Department immediately showed a decided reduction in the number of traffic accidents on those corners.

Dr. Harriss made radical changes all over the city, making one-way streets out of such an important artery of travel as Central Park West, which showed an unusually high percentage of the city’s accidents—and traffic conditions once again showed an improvement.

Many schemes were tried out in an effort to speed up Fifth avenue traffic, but they all failed because the underlying principle was wrong.

There was no uniformity of travel above or below the congested corner.

The Traffic Was Chaotic

At Forty-second street the traffic might be proceeding north and south while at Forty-third street it might be proceeding east and west, with the result that the vehicles passing Forty-second street going north had to come to a stop to permit the east-and-west travel at Forty-third street.

This, of course, slowed up traffic, and when the same thing occurred at ten or fifteen other corners along the twenty-three blocks from the congested area between Thirty-fourth street and Fifty-seventh street, it created such a traffic muddle that the authorities in charge became alarmed.

During one test period it was found that it actually took one vehicle forty minutes to pass from Fifty-seventh street to Thirty-fourth street, a distance of slightly more than a mile. This was at a rate of less than two miles an hour!

The next step in the plan was a proposal for one-way traffic going south on Fifth avenue from ten o’clock in the morning until five o’clock at night, with all northbound traffic shifted to Park avenue, two blocks farther east, during the same period. This plan included tower signals erected along Fifth avenue to assist in the traffic movement.

Although this one-way traffic plan was never actually put into effect because it was shown to cause more instead of less confusion on such an important thoroughfare, the towers erected were retained and employed in the present plan of two-way traffic, which has reduced the running time between Fifty-seventh street and Thirty-fourth street from forty minutes to less than ten minutes, or more than seventy-five per cent, and, in the bargain, has permitted from twenty-five to fifty per cent more vehicles to use Fifth avenue with less congestion than ever before!

What the towerman sees from his box overlooking Fifth avenue. Probably more individuals pass his house in a day than many persons see in a lifetime. Underwood & Underwood photo.

What the Towers Have Done

The secret of this wonderful achievement is that the towers have made it possible for all vehicles going north or south on Fifth avenue within the congested zone to move at the same time and to stop at the same time to permit the crossing of traffic on all the intermediate streets between Thirty-fourth street and Fifty-seventh street.

In other words, traffic on Fifth avenue is now practically continuous in movement, except during stated intervals, when it is interrupted to permit cross traffic on the intermediate streets.

No longer is traffic moving north and south on Fifth avenue at Forty-second street and east and west at Forty-first street. It is moving north and south across all side streets at once, and across Fifth avenue at all side streets at other intervals.

Vehicles move between one tower and the next in much the same manner as trains controlled by the block system of the railroads, except that when north-and-south travel is stopped, the vehicles must halt at the nearest street intersection, no matter whether it is at the tower or not.

It is just this continuity of travel that has speeded up traffic and made Fifth avenue the fastest congested street to travel on in the world.

The traffic on the cross streets is guided entirely by the movement of vehicles on the avenue, resulting in a slight delay in starting. Here is a suggestion for installing signal lights in view of the vehicles on side streets.

How the Signals Work

It is the block-signal-tower idea that has been responsible for the successful working out of the principle in practice. Each tower consists of a small boxlike house set up on steel stilts, with the floor of the house twelve feet from the roadway so as to give its occupant a clear view of the roadway from one tower to the next.

Besides a fixed white light that is used as a position light when there is no traffic regulation—for instance, in the middle of the night, there are two sets of three other lights on each tower, one set facing north and the other set south.

Each set of lights consists of an amber-colored lamp, flanked on one side by a green lamp of the same size and on the other by a red lamp.

When the amber lamp is lighted, it is a signal for traffic to move north and south along Fifth avenue, with east-and-west traffic in the side streets at a standstill. When the green lamp is lighted, it indicates that the north-and-south traffic is to stop to permit the vehicles in the side streets to cross Fifth avenue.

The red lamp is used in order to flash a warning signal that the direction of traffic is about to be changed from the north-and-south to the east-and-west direction, or vice versa.

The red signal is always shown between the amber and green signals, and indicates that the vehicles in motion at the time must stop to permit traffic to resume at right angles to the line then moving.

The time interval between the flashing of the red signal and the amber or green one following it permits the street intersections to be cleared, so that there is no delay in changing the direction of travel as soon as the signal is flashed. This is the theory of the system of continuous traffic.

One Man Controls All Signals

There are five signal towers, one at Thirty-fourth street and one at Fifty-seventh street, with three intermediate towers at Thirty-eighth, Forty-second, and Fiftieth streets. The tower at Thirty-eighth street is not used as a block or stopping-point, but is required to flash the signals between the tower at Forty-second street and that at Thirty-fourth street because the street level at the latter street is much lower than that at Forty-second street.

The flashing of the signals at all the towers is controlled by one man in the tower at Forty-second street. He employs an electric push-button bell system to notify the men in the other towers that he is about to change signals. This ringing of the bell gives the operator in each tower a sufficient interval of time to enable him to change the signals on his own tower simultaneously with the other operators.

All the towers are connected by telephone in case the bell system should get out of order.

The master signalman in his tower at the corner of Fifth avenue and Forty-second street. He controls the lights in all the five towers, signaling the other tower-men by means of an electric bell system. Underwood & Underwood photo.

Traffic Direction is Scheduled

The signals are in operation from nine o’clock in the morning until midnight, and apply not only to vehicular traffic but to pedestrian crossings as well.

The time allowed for north-and-south and east-and-west travel depends upon the time of day:
- From eight until ten o’clock in the morning, north-and-south traffic moves in periods of one and one half minutes, with east-and-west traffic at forty-second intervals.
- From ten in the morning until seven at night, the north-and-south interval is increased to two minutes, with the east-and-west period remaining at forty seconds.
- From seven in the evening until midnight, the north-and-south period is still two minutes, with the east-and-west interval reduced to thirty seconds.
- The red light to indicate a change of traffic direction is flashed for five seconds at all times.

While the traffic system is by no means perfect as yet, the great speeding up of traffic that it has made possible gives promise that it may be introduced on still other streets as New York’s vehicular congestion becomes more and more serious. While it is difficult to estimate the saving effected in dollars and cents since the new system was installed, it is probable that the entire cost of the installation is saved every day it is in operation.

An average of 4500 vehicles an hour for ten hours a day means 45,000 vehicles using the avenue. If thirty minutes are saved each vehicle in moving from Thirty-fourth street to Fifty-seventh street, the total time saved is equivalent to 22,500 hours.

Estimating the time of the occupants of the cars using the avenue at the low average of one dollar an hour, the system would save $22,500 a day or $6,750,000 for a 300-day year!

The five towers that control the block traffic system installed by Dr. John A. Harriss, New York’s Special Deputy for Traffic. They extend from the shopping district to Central Park.

Each tower has two sets of lights, one facing north and the other south. Each set consists of an amber-colored Lamp, flanked on one side by a green lamp and on the other side by a red lamp.
These lamps flash their lights alternately.
- The amber light indicates north-and-south traffic,
- the green light indicates east-and-west traffic, and
- the red flash signals that the traffic direction is about to change and everything must stop for a few seconds.

It has been estimated that the cost of installation of this system is saved every day it is in operation.

Suggestions for Improvement

Perhaps it may be possible to improve the system so that one man can operate all signals. By electrical controls, one man in one tower could change the signals on his own tower and the other four without the necessity of passing the word along to a man in each tower who does nothing more than open and close an electric switch in accordance with the bell signals from the one controlling tower.

It may also prove possible to install sets of three lights, amber, red, and green, as on the towers, on the opposite corners of buildings at each of the side-street intersections with Fifth avenue. At the present time the operators of vehicles waiting in the side streets to cross Fifth avenue cannot see the signals on the towers, and there is a slight delay in beginning traffic across the avenue unless a traffic officer is stationed at the street intersection.

Every One Must Help

The key-note of Dr. Harriss’ campaign to make New York city’s traffic the best handled in the world is cooperation between the pedestrian, the business man, the motorist, and the police. He says:

“For one man to attempt unaided to find the solution of a problem that presents so many factors, commercial, social, and municipal, would be manifestly impossible. The officials who have to do with traffic in New York must depend upon the cooperation of the police, automobile owners, chauffeurs, and owners of business establishments and places of amusement.

“The innovations that I have put into effect have been largely adaptations of well known principles of business efficiency. They provide for the elimination of needless waste of time, the recovery of lost motion, the prevention of friction, confusion, and misunderstanding.

“They should succeed because they take into account the spirit of sportsmanlike teamwork and the unfailing good nature which is typical of American crowds. And without the cooperation and sympathy of the people, rules and regulations are of scant avail.”

Dr. Harriss became interested in traffic regulation many years ago, when as a motorist he was continually coming in contact with laws that were supposed to control traffic but that in reality only made a bad matter worse, and entangled the problem in a maze of red tape and pompous official direction.

He decided to learn all there was to learn about traffic, so he went to London and Paris and Rome and Berlin and Vienna, and for month after month he traveled and looked and listened and talked to traffic experts in the four corners of the earth and then he came back to the United States to wait for a chance to put into execution some of his new-found ideas and knowledge.

Should the new traffic signal system be extended to streets on which there are street-cars, the tower might take the form of a bridge of light steel built over the street, with the tower-man’s box n the center.

Dr. Harriss’ Appointment

That chance came when Richard E. Enright, New York’s Police Commissioner, made Dr. Harriss Special Deputy for Traffic, and it was not long after that event that motorists and pedestrians began to notice that the handling of the traffic in the metropolis, always the best in the United States, was becoming even better; the police were more efficient, there was more system to the work, and there was an all-around improvement that brought joy to every one who traveled in automobiles as well as those who had to jump out of their way several times during the day.

Dr. Harriss recently returned from a trip to Europe, where leading traffic experts in London and Paris listened with great attention to his latest ideas for making city street congestion less costly in lives and money. It is said that the London authorities are considering the installing of the Fifth avenue system in that most congested city in Europe.

With such a man as Dr. Harriss at the head of New York’s traffic department, surely every citizen of the metropolis will not begrudge the little thought required to obey the rules as laid down by that department.

As before stated, with the full cooperation of every man, woman, and child - the latter trained by the schools to observe traffic regulations—the problems and complexities of modern traffic without doubt would be considerably simplified.

< Back to Top of Page