Saturday 25 August 2018

The zone post: Guelph gets safety first

Oddly, the postcard below was the one that got me interested in postcards of Guelph in the first place. Have a look and see if there is anything unusual there:

The card was printed by the Valentine-Black Co. of Toronto and published in the mid 1920s.

Here is a similar view today, courtesy of Google Street View:

Picking this card casually out of a box at an antique market, I was struck by the peculiar orange post in the middle of the intersection at Wyndham and Carden streets, rhyming visually with the campanile tower of the train station in the background. Who would plant a post in the middle of a busy intersection? I surmised it was some sort of traffic control measure. Being interested in the history of cars and cities, I bought the card and decided to find out.

It turned out that I was right. The post is apparently an example of what was called a "safety zone post" or just "zone post" for short. These posts were one of the first attempts to regulate the flow of automobile traffic in cities as that became both voluminous and dangerous.

From their introduction until about 1910, automobiles were mainly a curiosity for the well-to-do. In the summertime, when roads dried up enough to be passable, people who could afford motor cars (also called "motors" or "machines") would take them out of town for picnics or other recreations. This activity was pleasant for the motorists and mainly mildly amusing or annoying for other users of the roads.

However, with the introduction of cheaper cars like the Ford Model T in 1908, cars began to account for a substantial amount of traffic. The behaviour of motorists began to determine traffic conditions on streets and in a way that was significantly different from conditions on the streets before.

As Peter Norton (2008) explains in "Fighting traffic," city streets were common property, available for any members of the public to use more-or-less as they saw fit. If you had a mind to, you could stand in the street all day, or set up your peanut cart there, or play in the street, and that was normally your privilege.

Traffic was not usually very dangerous. It went at a slow pace and drivers or cyclists could maneuver around people who were hanging out on the street. Horses were normally smart enough not to run into people or other vehicles. Streetcars went slowly and along predictable paths.

This situation is illustrated in the following video of New York City around 1900. Note how people navigate or park in the streets without much concern for traffic.

As automobiles came to dominate the streets, this situation changed. They were large and heavy and went increasingly fast, so that being hit by one was a major problem. Their steering and brakes were not particularly responsive or even reliable, so they could be difficult to control. With their increased degrees of freedom, and few rules about who went where, automobile movements could be hard to anticipate.

The result was increasing levels of conflict and frustration. That Guelphites of this period were similarly affected is suggested by the following cartoon printed on the front page of the Guelph Evening Mercury (13 Nov 1915):

People began to think about how to deal with the risks posed by automobile traffic. An important, early response to this problem was the "Safety First" movement. Peter Norton (2015) points out that the Safety First movement originated in attempts to improve workplace safety and was transferred to railways and roads in the early 1900s. The slogan implies that safety should be the highest priority in traffic flow, over other priorities such as speed and convenience.

Furthermore, automobiles were seen as intruders in the streetscape and were thus the focus of traffic control. An interesting Maclean's article ("Two years of Safety First," 1 Nov 1915) gives a list of laws prompted by the Safety First movement aimed at regulating the configuration and maneuvers of automobiles on the roads:

We have seen the inauguration of automatic control of traffic which has minimized accidents; we have laws in several states and in most large cities compelling the use of dimming devices on headlights; we have seen the passing of the muffler cutout, the coming in of short radius turns on the automobiles themselves, and we have witnessed a strong effort on the part of various states to being about the enforcement of universal lighting laws which will compel every vehicle, no matter whether motor-propelled or horse-driven, to show lights at night.
For our purposes, the mention of "short radius turns" is significant. In early days, automobiles would often execute left turns by passing just next to the street corner on their left. Sometimes, this sort of turn is known as "cutting the corner." Drivers liked it because it was gradual and easy to execute rather than sudden and strenuous (remember, there was no power steering), and could be done without slowing down much. Geometrically, this turn is a "big radius" turn because a car following it would describe a big circle if it kept on turning.

As you can imagine, though, this turn is not very safe. An automobile cutting a corner could collide head-on with another vehicle approaching the corner on the cross-road. Since this turn was taken at high speed, the results of a collision could be severe. As the Safety First movement placed safety above speed, this sort of turn had to be prevented.

That is where the zone post came in. The zone post worked as a "keep right" sign. By placing a zone post in the middle of the intersection of Wyndham and Carden streets, it forced motorists who planned to make a left turn to drive to the middle of the intersection, slow down, and turn sharply left around the post. By replacing high-radius left turns at high speed with small radius left turns at low speed, the zone post helped to increase road safety.

In effect, the zone post turned an intersection into a very small roundabout.

Looking at the postcard again, many of the automobiles parked at the Grand Trunk station probably came down Wyndham street and made a left turn around the zone post in the picture before driving to the station entrance.

Zone posts were used at busy intersections for this purpose. However, their primary use was to designate "safety zones"—thus the name "safety zone post." A safety zone was a region of roadway that automobiles were not supposed to enter. The most common example was a zone around streetcar stops, which were often in the middle of roads. Since automobiles were prohibited from driving through safety zones, riders could wait inside them for streetcars and get on and off them without being menaced by motorists. At least, that was the theory.

In Guelph, the central point of the city's streetcar network was St. George's Square. People often stood in the Square around the streetcar tracks (standing on the grass around the Blacksmith Fountain was prohibited) while waiting for streetcars to arrive. As more automobiles took to the streets, this practice made these riders vulnerable.

In November 1915, the City of Guelph By-Laws and Markets Committee recommended a by-law to establish a safety zone around the streetcar tracks in St. George's Square. Although this notion seemed to meet with general approval, the zone was not enacted until nearly two years later. Finally, Guelph got its first safety zones and zone posts (Evening Mercury, 15 Sep 1917):

After a great deal of agitation and hard work Chief Randall has finally got zone posts placed at St. George’s Square. Three posts on each side of the square are in position, and they should go a long way in diverting traffic to the proper channel, and be a source of protection to pedestrians. The chief will also have the zone posts placed at the corner of Wyndham and Macdonnell streets, Wilson and Macdonnell, and the intersection at the Public Library.
There is a photograph in the Guelph Public Library archives of the safety zone in the Square, ca. 1920:

(Courtesy of the Guelph Public Library, C6-0-0-0-0-144.)

The zone posts are the skinny, metal sticks arranged around the Blacksmith Fountain garden, outside of the streetcar tracks. Painted on the top disk of each post is the instruction, "Keep to right." The posts were supposed to remind motorists to pass around the outside of the posts and in a counter-clockwise direction. In effect, St. George's Square became a large traffic circle.

I assume this measure helped to mitigate the danger of people being hit by automobiles in the middle of the Square. However, the zone posts were not fixed to the ground in order that they would not severely damage any cars that did hit them by mistake. A byproduct of this design was that the zone posts became objects of mischief. Indeed, they became auto-mobile themselves, especially at night (Evening Mercury, 9 Oct 1917):

Magistrate Watt made it very plain at the Police Court this morning that no nonsense, playful, willful or otherwise, around Chief Randall’s zone posts will be tolerated. His attention was called to the fact through a charge laid by Sergt. Rae against a young man, who was caught swinging one of the St. George’s Square posts around in the air on Sunday night. Although the youth pleaded not guilty, he had no defence to make, and was fined $2 and costs. The magistrate issued a warning that if any other case came before him of a like nature he would deal harshly with the offender. Chief Randall also informed His Worship that some time during last night the zone post at the corner of Wyndham and Macdonnell streets was removed and carried half a block up Macdonnell street. Another one at the Square was carried off some distance.
Indeed, the Mercury seemed to delight in reporting on the nocturnal perambulations of these "silent policemen" and how this habit affected the poor Police Chief (Evening Mercury, 2 Sep 1919):
For the second time this week the zone post which stands guard at the Public Library corner was removed during last night, and carried to Oxford Street. Chief Rae was very wrathy this morning when he heard of the matter, and stated he would pay $5.00 out of his own pocket for information that would lead to the arrest of the guilty party.
One more for good measure (Evening Mercury, 12 Nov 1919):
Apparently some person was laboring under the impression that last night was Hallowe’en, and as usual Chief Rae’s zone posts were the targets for the jokers. The Chief’s silent policeman which does duty at the corner of Woolwich and Norwich Streets, was removed during the night and taken to Hamilton’s marble works [now the site of Speedy Muffler], and this morning the “Keep to the Right” post was doing sentinel duty on top of a large monument. The post was still on monumental duty at noon today.
These long-suffering "dummy cops" kept their vigil in St. George's Square until 1923 when they were deemed unnecessary after the changes to the street car alignment there. However, zone posts continued to regulate left turns in downtown Guelph intersections for many years to come.

Some safety zones are still with us. School safety zones typically mandate reduced speed limits on roads around schools in order to reduce risk to children who cross streets there.

Another kind of safety zone is the crosswalk. In addition to zone posts, safety zones could be delineated by white lines painted on paved road surfaces. One sort of safety zones that cities began to mark in this way were lanes for pedestrians to cross streets at their corners. These markings were sometimes referred to as "jay lines" since they were provided, in part, to prevent people from crossing streets at mid-block, a practice still known as "jay walking." All is explained in this article from the Harrisburg Telegraph (1 Jun 1915):

“Jay lines,” for pedestrians will be placed at busy street intersections in Harrisburg. These lines will be painted in white and will mark the space to be used by pedestrians when crossing streets.

Colonel Joseph B. Hutchison arranged with Superintendent of Streets William H. Lynch to have “jay lines” at the busy corners, and to keep them in good condition. In explaining the new safety first project to-day Colonel Hutchison said:

“Two lines will be painted at each crossing. The lines will be separated, allowing a space equal to the width of the sidewalk. When a traffic officer orders an automobile, street car or any other vehicle to stop, it will not mean that the vehicle can run halfway over the crossing, but must stay beyond the “jay lines.” It will also mean greater safety to pedestrians, as they will be able to cross a street without the necessity of running around a vehicle that has stopped halfway on a crossing or taking chances of being hit by an automobile or wagon coming from another direction.”
Although the Safety First movement and its zone posts disappeared in the 1930s, its legacy lives on in the form of these "jay lines," including in St. George's Square.

A recent proposal for redevelopment of St. George's Square includes turning it into a traffic circle. As we have seen, this plan is, in a way, a case of back to the future.

Because you asked, traffic in New York in 1928. And, yes, that is the Bambino in the car. Note how the car drives through a safety zone at the video's end.