Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Changing Skyline: Big boxes making us safer, and uglier

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.

This "Changing Skyline" column on the installation of new control boxes for Philadelphia traffic lights incorrectly identified the federal agency requiring the city to provide for the future inclusion of video-surveillance equipment. The project is under the auspices of the Federal Highway Administration, according to Stephen Buckley, the city's deputy commissioner of transportation. The city will have the software capability to monitor traffic lights when the project is completed, he added.

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?

Let's start with the Department of Homeland Security.

On orders from the federal government, Philadelphia is replacing all its electromechanical signal boxes with a digital system that will eventually host the guts for a citywide network of surveillance cameras. While the old signal boxes were small enough to be strapped to the poles of traffic lights, the new digital, camera-ready signals require a lot more space - freestanding cabinets 67 inches tall.

The first of these brown behemoths are now going in at every signalized intersection east of Broad Street between South and Market, in some of Philadelphia's oldest, most historic neighborhoods. You can't miss them.

Taller than a standard mailbox, they rear up over pedestrians like angry grizzly bears.

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.

Wasn't there a way to make these boxes less intrusive? Do cities really need a surveillance camera on every corner? You can bet the feds won't demand the same Code Orange security in less-urban areas.

These signal boxes might easily have been one-third the size. When the city digitized the traffic lights on the west side of Broad Street some years ago, it fit its equipment into snug, pole-mounted boxes. But that was before the 9/11 attacks. The difference today is that the city must make room for a layer cake of solid-state panels, relays, and fiber-optic cables capable of running the federal surveillance cameras.

The fridge-sized units would blend quietly into the background on a busy commercial strip, but they're way out of scale on narrow urban streets where houses are generally 35 feet tall. It's hard to avoid bumping into them.

While Washington is behind the oversized boxes, it was the city's Streets Department that determined their placement.

Stephen Buckley, the new deputy commissioner for transportation, explained that the contractors were forced to cram the boxes into whatever free niches they could find because sidewalks are already so crowded with equipment - street lamps, parking signs, hydrants, bus shelters, bollards, honor boxes.

You have to wonder about some of their decisions. Marjorie Amrom was stunned to walk outside recently and find workers installing a signal box that partially blocks a door to her historic house at 10th and Lombard. "I'm not allowed to touch the outside without permission. How can they just go ahead and do this?" she marveled.

So far, residents have been griping mainly to their councilman, Frank DiCicco, who has asked the city to consider relocating the most intrusive boxes. Only the National Park Service has fought back: It threatened to sue if the city installed the boxes near Independence Mall, Buckley told me.

The high-visibility intruders don't just compromise the neighborhood's looks, they also make walking more treacherous. Our narrow sidewalks were laid out in colonial times, and their intimate scale provides perfect conditions for strolling, winning Philadelphia a reputation as one of the country's most walkable cities.

It's easy to see, though, how quickly Center City's gentle footpaths might devolve into a high-stress gauntlet. It doesn't appear that pedestrian comfort was a top priority when the Streets Department began planning the project several years ago.

That's part of a pattern, believes Paul Levy, who runs the Center City District. "We don't design cities to give priority to the pedestrian," he complained.

Levy is trying to convince city officials that pedestrian-friendly policies are good for the economy, and just arranged a series of meetings with Danish planner Jan Gehl, who transformed Copenhagen. Gehl told local leaders that making cities walkable could improve the quality of life, attract new residents, and dramatically reduce its carbon footprint.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the old traffic controls, which emit a clocklike tick-tick when the lights change. But Washington wants cities to go digital, and the Federal Highway Administration provided Philadelphia with the $12 million budget for the upgrade.

Digitization of the traffic lights does offer many benefits. Ultimately, the city will be able to reroute cars remotely from a traffic-management center during an emergency, or change traffic speeds to suit weather conditions. The surveillance cameras also could be monitored from the center's computer and eventually used for crime control. There are plans to start digitizing signals in the northeast quadrant of Center City in 2012.

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.