Change blows past downtown traffic signals

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When I was growing up, stoplights were a clear, quick measure of urbanity.

There were no-stoplight towns, some so small they earned my parents’ poetic label, “no bank, no beer, don’t stop here.”

We lived in a one-stoplight town, situated at the intersection of Main Street and U.S. Highway 69. There was a gas station/convenience store on or near every corner, affording us a cosmopolitan selection of candy, snacks and large fountain pops.

Then there were places like Mason City, with stoplights all over. It was an urban proving ground for generations of driver’s education students.

Beyond that were real cities, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, etc. Don’t even go there. I mean, really, our parents would not let us drive there.

But the stoplight scale of urbanity is in need of an adjustment.

Maybe you’ve noticed traffic signals are disappearing from downtown Cedar Rapids. Several were pulled from Second Avenue in recent weeks as the city readjusts traffic flow to reflect the current “atmosphere” downtown.

Basically, there’s not enough traffic to justify the signals, we’re told. Additionally, Second Avenue will be put on a “road diet,” with just two lanes of two-way traffic. This is far different from my road diet of candy, snacks and large fountain pops, but both may leave you feeling jittery, then sluggish.

Dumping signals is just one among many big changes in downtown traffic flow we’ve seen evolve in recent years, with protected bike lanes, new street parking configurations and two-way conversions. They’ve caused considerable consternation for some. We’ve got critical letters to the editor and disgruntled social media reactions to prove it.

Personally, the changes have been no big deal. For one thing, I live in Marion, Iowa’s roundabout capital, so it takes more than a funny parking lane to cause driver discombobulation.

And I can see the wisdom in, for example, improving bike-ability as Cedar Rapids makes hefty investments in its trails system, bike-friendly neighborhoods such as New Bo, and amenities, such as Cedar Lake and the Sleeping Giant bridge.

We’re told the changes make downtown more pedestrian friendly. But as the city removes traffic signals, they’ve also created several intersections where cross traffic no longer stops. I’m not sure how that’s good for pedestrians. Look both ways, folks. Twice.

But as the signals went down, I wondered when they went up in the first place. To the archives.

This took a lot of digging. Search “traffic signals,” and you’ll find a rich history of car accidents and traffic tickets. It’s just not the rich history I was looking for.

But I caught a break. A 1967 history blurb informed me that in 1947, “Cedar Rapids’ master traffic plan was advanced another step when the city council authorized installation of automatic traffic signals at seven additional intersections on First, Second and Fifth avenues E.”

That led me to a terrific January 1948 Gazette article by Fred Remington, which chronicled the new system’s completion and the history of Cedar Rapids traffic lights, as told by longtime Safety Commissioner Gordon Hughes.

According to Hughes, the first traffic lights were installed in 1921. The very first one was at “Armstrong’s corner,” referring to the venerable downtown department store. Apparently, Model T’s and Maxwells, Remington wrote, were rolling into downtown at “traffic jam proportions.” A loop of traffic signals followed to keep things orderly.

“Traffic light installation had not reached its present state of mechanical perfection then, and the conduit for these signals was laid under a thin coat of asphalt which wore off in the summer and drivers were often passing over bare wire,” Remington wrote.

Also, Remington reported, when one light went out, “like Christmas tree bulbs in series, the whole works went out.”

Seven signals were installed mid-street and “were disastrously unsuccessful.”

“The one at the corner of First Avenue and First Street used to get knocked over on an average of once a week,” said Hughes who first worked as a traffic policeman after a career as a motorcycle racer.

So officials decided to surround the mid-street signals with a “virtual fortress of railroad iron and concrete.” Unfortunately, one driver who struck the fortress was killed and another was critically injured. Back to the drawing board.

In 1948, traffic cops still stood at intersections and blew their whistles to let drivers know when the traffic signals changed, or to signal violations. The police chief at the time was considering restricting whistle use to violations. Later, automated traffic enforcement cameras. Much later.

But Remington points out Cedar Rapids never tried traffic cops on horseback, as were deployed in other cities. He quickly added this fact should not “be construed as meaning that our policemen are not as virile and dashing as the men on horseback of other communities. They just like motorcycles better.”

Point well taken.

Incidentally, Remington, according to his 1982 UPI obituary, was a Buffalo, N.Y., native and an award winning editorial writer and television director who produced documentaries. He worked in Pittsburgh after leaving Cedar Rapids.

According to his piece, in 1948, traffic signals guarded 31 intersections. Today, Cedar Rapids is home to 187 traffic signals and 19 pedestrian signals or “hybrid beacons.” So don’t mourn the stoplights just yet.

And what all this history shows is, yet again, the only constant is change. If the drivers of 1921 could brave bare wires, burned out bulbs and fortresses of railroad iron, surely we can endure our goofy parking lanes, cross traffic and road diets. Driverless vehicles are next, so buckle up.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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