When Traffic Lights Make Us Stop and Think For the past 15 years, writer Brian Hayes has made a hobby out of studying — and photographing — the manmade. He is the author of Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape. His subject on a recent trip to Washington? Traffic lights.
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When Traffic Lights Make Us Stop and Think

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When Traffic Lights Make Us Stop and Think

When Traffic Lights Make Us Stop and Think

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

For our Science Out of the Box feature this weekend, we're going on a road trip. Brian Hayes will guide us. He's the author of "Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape." Hayes is an explorer of the manmade world. NPR's Christopher Joyce set out with Brian Hayes to investigate the workings of a modern intersection.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Brian Hayes is a tall thoughtful man who likes mathematics but makes his living as a writer. Fifteen years ago, he started a new hobby. Every chance he got, he'd climb into his car and set off into what you might call the industrial sphere, the engineered world, the world of infrastructure, which is what we're doing today.

Mr. BRIAN HAYES (Author, "Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape"): There was a time when I very nearly bought a van because I wanted to have something where I could climb up on the roof in order to shoot pictures over chain-link fences.

JOYCE: What inspired Hayes to lurk around industrial sites with a camera and a notebook was his preteen daughter.

Mr. HAYES: We'd be driving down the New Jersey Turnpike and she asked what's that thing?

JOYCE: And you were stumped.

Mr. HAYES: Often. I never admitted it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: I always had an answer.

JOYCE: Was it the right answer?

Mr. HAYES: Generally not. And it led me to the idea that I might do a useful service by actually finding out what the right answer is.

JOYCE: The hobby grew into an obsession. Hayes drove 70,000 miles looking for infrastructure. While tourists would be snapping pictures at a scenic overlook, he'd be photographing a manhole cover or a power line. Security guards at damns and freight yards regarded him with suspicion.

Over the years, Hayes managed to get into some pretty unusual places. Today it's the Traffic Management Center in Washington, D.C.

Unidentified Man: Hi, how are you?

Mr. HAYES: Hello.

JOYCE: How you doing? I'm Chris Joyce.

Unidentified Man: Hi.

Mr. HAYES: I'm Brian Hayes.

Unidentified Man: Welcome to...

JOYCE: Places where engineers sit behind computer screens and essentially run our lives without us knowing much about it.

Mr. DOUG NOBLE(ph) (Traffic Engineer): My name is Doug Noble. I'm the chief traffic engineer for District of Columbia Department of Transportation.

JOYCE: Noble is in charge of traffic lights, street lights, crosswalk signals, and all the rest of the technology that keeps traffic moving, and sometimes not moving.

Mr. HAYES: One of the key questions that we have for you is, how come traffic's so bad?

Mr. NOBLE: Because there's a lot of people trying to use the road at the same time.

JOYCE: Okay, maybe that's not rocket science, but there is a lot of what looks like rocket science here at the traffic command center. Turrain Wiggins(ph) watches a wall of video screens, 36 of them. It's like something you'd see at a NASA command center. Each monitor shows a different intersection, but the scenery's the same: traffic.

Mr. HAYES: Is that kind of like watching paint dry?

Mr. TURRAIN WIGGINS (District of Columbia Department of Transportation): No, actually it's not. It's pretty interesting. I can see incidents as they happen. It's like catching lightning in a bottle, actually seeing a traffic accident as it occurs.

Mr. HAYES: You ever see anything that maybe you figure you shouldn't be seeing?

Mr. WIGGINS: Nothing like that, no. We're not allowed to zoom in or anything like that, no.

JOYCE: Although you can't zoom in on drivers, if you're lucky, as we were, you can see a cockroach crawl across the camera lens. It looks bigger than a truck in the intersection.

An intersection is actually a better place to see techno-infrastructure at work, so we're going to one of Washington's biggest - Thomas Circle. It's just a few blocks from the White House.

Okay, we're at the circle now, and I would ask you, what the heck is that? A good-sized sort of mushroom-looking piece of green metal.

Mr. HAYES: A mushroom about two feet high and two feet across. It looks grimy. I'm going to make a guess. I believe there is a tunnel that runs under this circle, and I believe this has something to do with the ventilation system for the tunnel.

JOYCE: It turns out he's right. In fact, cities are riddled with ventilation outlets for all the tunnels and conduits that run underneath the ground. But what makes Thomas Circle tick are the traffic signals. They're all under the control of those mysterious refrigerator-sized metal boxes you see planted on sidewalks.

Mr. NOBLE: Years ago, you used to be able to come up next to one of these boxes and they would be warm and you could hear the little motor whirring inside with the rotary switch that switched the lights.

JOYCE: Traffic engineer Doug Noble lets us peek inside.

Mr. NOBLE: What's in here is a whole bunch of stuff. The bottom of the cabinet is the power supply.

Mr. HAYES: And all this wiring goes down into the sidewalk into where?

Mr. NOBLE: Into conduits that go from signal to signal to - then go up the poles within the signal to power the individual lights.

Mr. HAYES: So under - between us and the circle, which is about 50 yards away, there's all this wiring...

Mr. NOBLE: Exactly.

Mr. HAYES: ...that people are driving over and it's going up there to the lights.

Mr. NOBLE: Exactly. So for example, under here, this one goes out under the pavement to that manhole there that goes over to that light.

JOYCE: But what Brian really wants to know is whether those buttons pedestrians get to push at crosswalks are fake.

Mr. HAYES: There are widespread rumors that those buttons aren't actually connected to anything anyway. That you can press all you want, but it's going to take its sweet time before it changes the light.

Mr. NOBLE: Well, yes, they are connected to something, but - although it may take its sweet time to do something. The detector, once you push it once - and you don't have to push it 16 times like some people do, like an elevator button - it sends a little signal to the signal that says I'm here. And then there are certain points in that clock cycle of the signal that it will allow the signal to be changed in advance of when it otherwise would.

JOYCE: We don't wait for the crosswalk signal.

Mr. HAYES: Can you get a jaywalking ticket?

(Soundbite of horn)

Mr. NOBLE: Now you have a green light, so...

Mr. HAYES: Later, we continue around the circle without traffic engineer Doug Noble, but more mindful to obey the signals.

JOYCE: I feel guilty jaywalking now that I've talked to a real traffic engineer.

Mr. HAYES: I think it's understandable how he would be hurt to see his signals being ignored.

JOYCE: On the other side of the circle we find something else interesting: on the pavement, high tech lane markers.

Mr. HAYES: We're walking across the street here where there are white stripes and arrows to mark the lanes, and those are not just paint these days. It's a plastic material that's quite thick. And after they put it down, while it's still warm, they sprinkle glass beads on it.

JOYCE: Glass beads?

Mr. HAYES: Glass beads.

JOYCE: Why is that?

Mr. HAYES: Well, the glass beads act as retro reflectors. Whatever direction lights comes into them, it goes back the same way. And if you stand with the sun behind your head and look at the - look at the white stripe so that your - the shadow of you head falls right on the stripe - we're stepping into traffic here - you'll see a halo, a bright halo, surrounding your head. Only you see it.

JOYCE: It is very bright.

Mr. HAYES: It's as if you've got a halo around you. And that's from the retro reflectors, from the glass beads.

JOYCE: If I stand in traffic very long I will have a halo.

Mr. HAYES: Yes, indeed.

JOYCE: It turns out, I'm not the one about to get hit. It looks like there's been a failure of traffic control here. We have an accident in Thomas Circle and traffic has stopped.

A truck and a sedan are stopped in the road. There's a police officer interviewing an angry-looking woman. An eyewitness, Beauty Stevens(ph) who in fact works for the Traffic Services Administration, fills us in.

Ms. BEAUTY STEVENS (Traffic Services Administration): What we've witnessed was a motorist inside the circle with the right of way who was caught by the light in the intersection and another vehicle who wanted, who just couldn't wait. He accidentally grazed her vehicle. She got out of her car, they exchanged words and blows. Luckily MPD was right on the scene...

JOYCE: That's the police department?

Ms. STEVENS: ...and responded quickly. Yes, Metropolitan Police Department.

JOYCE: And that's the thing about infrastructure. We take it for granted until it breaks or until someone uses it the wrong way. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

(Soundbite of sirens)

ELLIOTT: For those of you who like to photograph the manmade world, we want your pictures. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED WEEKEND has set up a Flickr photo account where you can add pictures of the built environment that fascinates you. Go to npr.org to learn more. You can also see Brian Hayes's photo collection of manhole covers.

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