How To Ruin A Cityscape

I wasn't able to blog this when I first saw it in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Dec. 19, but it annoyed me so much I hung onto the paper and saved it for a time when I could.

The typical traffic light is roughly the size of a large table fan.

The hardware necessary to switch a signal from green to amber to red in a fail-safe way can probably fit into the space of an old desktop computer.

So why does Philadelphia need to install control boxes as big as refrigerators to operate its traffic lights?

Thank you, Department of Homeland Security. Requirements for specific kinds of surveillance equipment made the boxes into monstrous things that blight the urban landscape and even, in some cases, partially block the doorways of historic buildings - buildings, as the owner notes, you can't touch on the outside without permission. The ugly things interfere with pedestrian traffic.

This just depresses the hell out of me. Philadelphia's central core is such a beautiful and walkable city, not to mention historic. Now, we have this:

Some signal boxes slam hard up against the walls of 18th-century houses. Others block the gracious windows of antiques stores and restaurants. A box shadows the side of St. Peter's Church, one of the city's most significant colonial buildings. And even when the big boxes find spots at curbside, their presence is impossible to ignore.

In our zeal to protect America from attack, it seems we've implemented a policy that scars one of America's most intact colonial neighborhoods.

One bright note:

Only the National Park Service has fought back: It threatened to sue if the city installed the boxes near Independence Mall, Buckley told me.

Yay, NPS!

The final indignity associated with these hideous digital signal boxes?

But with one quadrant nearly complete, the digitization project faces a not-so-small hitch: The city can't afford the software to run the system.

Yes - ugly, intrusive, AND essentially useless.

See here for a picture of one the ugly behemoths in place.

I blame Homeland Security for requiring this Big Brother crap in the first place. But come on, engineers, is this the best freakin' design you could come up with for one of America's most historic cities? Do you think they'd let crap like this on the street in a place like Heidelberg? I seriously doubt it. It's an insult and represents a failure of imagination, which is something engineers are supposed to be all about.

More like this

This shit would be ridiculous even if they could afford the software. It's nothing but security theater. The London Underground is fucking overloaded with security cameras. Did that prevent the terror attack of 2005?

Part of the problem could be that the current draw requires big switches and the stuff has to operate in extremely cold and hot conditions. Switch to LEDs and life would be a lot easier for everyone!


By Sweetwater Tom (not verified) on 27 Dec 2008 #permalink

That's hideous, as well as a potential safety hazard. The hardware for running the operation ought to be part of the signal pole, or underground.

Here in Normal, Illinois, the water department tore down its old building, but used the hand-carved stone cornice piece in an attractive monument in front of the new building. And then the city put a fridge-sized stainless-steel traffic box right in front of it.

Sometimes I wonder if there's a secret society devoted to ugliness.

"Digitizing"... All that means is that they're upgrading to plc's, or at least a sibling of plc's.

Can't imagine what else is in those boxes. Maybe nothing? Maybe it's a container of paranoia intended to inhibit naughty actions at intersections? Now I'm curious...
Ha! Google reveals the inside of these monstrous boxes:

Yep. A few plc's. In enough otherwise empty rack space to run Disneyland.
All evidence implies that they overbought for the application. One of the things paying for upgrades provides is more comprehensive network access. Secured by an easily defeated standard control box latch, with directions taped to the inside of the door, with enough empty space in the bottom for a small person to fold up inside and (un)comfortably access the network in private with a laptop and a cable. DHS strikes again.

As an engineer who has worked with computers, communications, and especially the security of both, I have a couple of things to say:

1. The electronics needed to run traffic lights can be fitted inside the lights.
2. Traffic lights and security monitoring are separate systems. Combining them leads to unnecessary complexity.
3. Security monitoring needs to be secure itself. The infrastructure should not be exposed to the public in big boxes that cars can ram into. Hide it underground if you can't use wireless.

A very poor design. There must be other than engineering reasons for it (to put it kindly).

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 27 Dec 2008 #permalink

My fiist reaction to your headline was 'not phallic architecture again'. But it does look like someone needs to be seen to be doing something.

But they're handy to sit on when watching parades. No one really kicks you off. And maybe in 100 years they'll be considered quaint and historic in their own right.