John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Stop? Go? Don't walk? Gaaaaah!
Stop? Go? Walk? Don't walk?
I think I'll just turn the car off right now and have a little cry.
This schizophrenic traffic light, located in a roundabout in London's Canary Wharf business district, will provoke traffic headaches from half a mile away. It has 75 lit-up signals, all blinking in their own bumptious syncopation, supported by a 28-foot-tall perplexity of iron stalks. Running into this jungle of traffic-control overgrowth must be every student driver's hairiest nightmare.
So which evil genius of a traffic engineer is responsible for it? Actually, none: It's a work of public art fashioned by France's Pierre Vivant (and brought to my attention by reader Tim Hanrahan. Thanks, Tim!). The city's public-arts commission installed "Traffic Light Tree" in 1998 to replace a plane tree that was, incredibly, "choking to death as a result of pollution." At the time, Vivant said that his traffic complication "imitates the natural landscape of the adjacent London plane trees, while the changing pattern of the lights reveals and reflects the never ending rhythm of the surrounding domestic, financial and commercial activities."
The idea was to have the lights blipping along to trades made on the London Stock Exchange, but that was dropped in favor of a simpler computer-controlled pattern. There is a hard-to-believe report of drivers initially being confused by the imposing frankenlight; what is known as fact is that it won a 2005 competition for "best-looking" roundabout. (The worst roundabout, if you want to know, is one located on the A4312 in Swindon, which "leaves drivers in a spin, often causing them to drive in the wrong direction.")
A local council uprooted the tree recently but has promised to put it back, as it is much beloved by the people. Here are a few more views of the Gordian Knot of traffic lights:
Top photo courtesy of William Warby on Wikipedia.