Tuesday, September 1, 2015
Carry a red flag
As the blog will receive its millionth visitor today, I'm hosting a live chat party in the Party Room— the upper right hand side of the page — at 7 p.m. It's BYOB, but there will be music and conversation. Dress is casual.
When automobiles first appeared on American roads, more than a century ago, they were considered unacceptably dangerous—too loud, too fast, apt to frighten the horses and run down pedestrians. Certain towns, in an attempt to minimize the hazard, enacted ordinances requiring that any horseless carriages traveling within city limits be preceded by a person holding a red flag, to warn of the approaching peril.
Such laws were soon swept aside in our rush toward the future. But knowing about them left a lingering notion of a red flag, as a safety device, as being quaint and antique, firmly ensconced in what the great James Thurber once called "the halls and parlors of the past." A way to express caution that is rarely found today, perhaps at the occasional construction site, or maybe on a lifeguard stand to convey beach conditions, or planted, probably due to some arcane law, at the end of an extra-wide trailer truck.
We were heading for the Lakeshore Arts Festival in Evanston's Dawes Park early in August when I was stopped dead in my tracks, while scooting with my family across Sheridan Road at Clark Street, by this singular sign. I told them to go on without me and I'd catch up after I marveled at the wonder..
Under the sign, a cylinder to hold the flags.
Empty, of course. There were no flags, though there used to be. A web site called "Legal Insurrection" posted this picture from a correspondent claiming they went up in 2012 as "a recent addition in a series of 'improvements' to this crossing where, to my knowledge, there has never been a mishap."
A little research tells us the flags were featured in the Pedestrian Safety Evaluation Report delivered at a special Evanston City Council meeting on Aug. 6, 2012, recommending the city "Place crossing flags at all of the park crossings to alert the drivers when pedestrians are crossing the street."
About half a dozen intersections have them in Evanston, according to residents.
Claire Zulkey, writing about the flags on the WBEZ blog, pointed out that pilferage by "hooligans" is a drawback to the system, though not the only one.
There is also mockery. The Daily Northwestern noted that a budding NU comic ridiculed the flags during his routine though, in amateur journalist fashion, did not detail what was said.
There is an exhausted carelessness to the flag idea, almost a kind of paradox: any crossing dangerous enough to require that pedestrians vigorously wave flags over their heads in an attempt to save their lives probably needs a stop sign or a streetlight, if not an overhead pedestrian bridge. The flag strategy smacks of cheapness and intellectual failure. It's something you would expect to see in North Korea, in lieu of expensive traffic lights.
That said, the flag system is not without charm. I have never strode across a busy intersection madly waving a red flag over my head, but imagine the experience has a certain frisson, assuming you aren't run down by a truck in the process. You really need the aforementioned James Thurber to convey the feeling, which he conveniently has already done, in his 1939 illustration of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's chestnut "Excelsior."
I left the intersection with conflicting emotions. One, that I wished I lived in a society where people wouldn't steal the flags—college students are prone to pranks, and a bucket of red flags is an invitation to midnight theft if ever there were. You'd like to think that even sophomores drunk on punch and grain alcohol would pause before undermining even this sadly inadequate, fragile, jury-rigged yet somehow quaint system of pedestrian safety, but obviously they don't.
Two, Evanston should stock the white cylinders or remove them. I felt positively naked, crossing flagless. If the flags are necessary, keep them supplied. If not, take down the signs.
Third, I know Evanston is a different sort of a town. But really, this is daft, a piece of performance art that somehow drifted into serious traffic management. It's something I'd expect to find in Oak Park.