« 99% Invisible

413- Highways 101

2020-09-15 | 🔗

Icons and symbols and signage are all around us, and nowhere more so than on the open road. So for this episode of Ubiquitous Icons: hop in the car with Roman and Kurt for a crash course in roadside signage. We'll learn about the history of the stop sign, the iconic rural mailbox, and the signs that tell you what you'll find at highway exits. This is Highways 101.

Highways 101

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
This is ninety. Nine percent, invisible, I'm roman Mars, if you listen to the show for a while. You know that were big fans of icons and symbols and sign it and one of them in places you in Canada is on the road. So in our ongoing ubiquitous icon series or taken to the highways and thinking We should call this one highways. One hundred one ghetto like you didn't. I ways went away as critical studies are digital director and co, author of the book and publicity I wanted things Kurt does, as he checks are inbox for Listener submitted ideas comes to all of them in earlier this summer, and ninety nine I found him Dan wrote us about a strange, stop sign that he encountered while travelling, and you started digging into this story. Yes, Oh so his email started like this a couple
years ago we took a trip to Hawaii, and my wife became obsessed over a few blue. Stop science, we saw in parking lot, the signs were the size and shape and use the same lettering is normal red stop signs, but they were bright blue, Don't think I've ever seen that before I had never seen this either, neither in images or in her life. So I started into why some are blue and in that turned out to be pretty easy to figure out. But it got me wondering thing a lot more fundamental, which is. Why are I swear, they re read debris liquid guy! Isn't that such a thing in the first place, the elderly that got me into, of course, digging into the whole history of stop sites. Course. Of course, that's the only way this is going to go with you yeah, it's just my nature and, as I was looking into this, this one figure kept popping up everywhere. I looked a guy named Blue,
Phelps Ear, who, in the early by hundreds, became known as the Father of traffic safety, What do you have to do to earn that title? The Father of traffic safety so evil, was born way back in the eating fifties? Then, if you think about it, you know In brief, these is in New York. This is a New York without cars, though of course, it's a New York without stop signs that sometimes told me The roads back then were kind of this open space that was shared by carriages, but our streams and their moved all around. It was a lot different re write and there is like some attempts to do some traffic management and stuff, but it was all kind of ad hoc and, like it open standing in the street and it wasn't very organised at all got worse right, more technologies evolved and more and more people are on the streets and cars. Showing up man it just was Creasy be clear that this was a mass and it was going to need some kind of regulation,
and so was Ino. Some kind of road expert is that when he was working on Lots of things not really he he came from this, family real estate. Business decided it wasn't for him, wasn't his passion his passion was traffic. So in nineteen hundred he writes this article and its entire. Early, clear in hindsight, He realized what he was doing at the time, but he basically was writing a treatise that would lay the groundwork for everything he would do for the rest of his life. In the end he would come around to you know: inventing and evolving all different kinds of traffic innovations things we take for granted today, like road reductions and pedestrian cry, wow, so we really earned that tunnel. The father of traffic safety, absolutely an end once is ideas got some. Action in the U S, he began helping other cities create traffic plans and some really
ignoble designs, traced back to him, like roundabouts, at Piccadilly, circus in London and around the arctic triumph in Paris, and he was even inducted into the legion of honor by the french government after World WAR, one for traffic, yes, we got that essentially got. You know France's equivalent of knighthood for traffic design, but if you think about it from their perspective, his traffic designed to help get friend troops to the front lines which, in turn, help hold Oldham Germans during the war France's pushing like sixty thousand troops towards her done to hold the german advanced towards Paris. It was all made possible by this guy's. Traffic planning and so was. I knew the man who met burst out well I can build on this rabbit. Who look you know him then I realized along the way was that I was in Africa.
Defined the inventor of the stop saying, because it's one of those things that has existed in biggest forms for a while now, but it's safe to say that no played a really big role in popularizing, stop signs, yield signs and, and that kind of signage infrastructure, and that's why his name comes up so much when you look and these things and also Europe, put this in context trait stop signs back. Then they were what we think of and stop signed today. Their designs buried, place to place, what are the first ones that popped up in Detroit in? I think it was one thousand nine hundred and fifteen had black lettering on a white background cuz. It will be for contrast, so they really. They came in all these different shapes and sizes, and there was no Sir one person, you could say haha that guy made
stop yeah. I mean I think that makes sense to me that there would be a need for stop signs in and therefore they would be invented and multiple places multiple times So when did they sort of get this octagonal shape that we attribute to them like went winter then happen right, so that actually does have a specific answer, and the answer is nineteen, twenty three: that's what Mississippi Valley, Association of State Highway departments decided to standardize the shape. That's a very specific. And it was a pretty good idea to make it non standard shape, something that will stand out, but there, actually more to it than that they have this idea that they could creep in association between geometry and safety. Explain more! What do you mean? Well, they believed that the shape itself could communicate. Sir,
thing like part of what the sign was trying to do could be achieved through the shape of that site southern we're not talking about just associating where shape with a specific meaning, they actually there's some kind of theory behind, an eight having a meaning that ties to stopping yes, and this was a huge surprise to me- because it sounds like nonsense sounds right. You tell us a sort of a cold, almost straight talk. We found it. I found this out. Do this dear Times magazine article by Hilary Green? in deed moving Stein and I'm just gonna, have you read this excerpt for context? That explains why the Highway Department Association recommended different shapes for different signs I quote. The recommendations were based on a simple, albeit not exactly into do idea. The more sides assign has the
the danger level it invokes by the Indians threatening the circle, which has an infinite number of science screamed danger. And was recommended for railroad crossings. The octagon, with its eight sides, was used to denote the second highest level, I'm in shape was for warning signs and the rectangle and square shapes were used for informational sides. That is why I so many things that I have some questions. I have about this one Which is like circle, but we have an infinite number of sides, thinking back to lay Kiddo grade school geometry, and only I mean. I think that there is something to that. I think it'll. They gather tat if you take the tandon of each point and therefore it has an infinite number of signs, but I dont think you precede having? No, I don't think they Brazil that one side writing it felt like. We look at a circle, a square and a triangle. We say ah ha right,
three or an infinite: it never in a million years occurred to me that there is some grand geometric theory behind you. S stop sign shapes buddy You think about it. If you start to unpack a new book at science around here, you can sort of understand what they're getting it right, it's like WWW, regular science, often tell you like what exit to tea or something their circles at railroad crossing, assure you, but there's also leg arm bars at railroad crossings. You know like because it, the circle is not quite enough. Sometimes there's also excellent right or ran on kinds of other things, so I get that there's a theory behind it and in it and if it has some kind of basis into me out exam unwilling to entertain the ocean. So now that you know in nineteen twenty three in Mississippi, they establish the shape. How did they come up with the red background? Well, that it seemed like the simpler decision that would actually took up a while longer, every time yellow
often used in part just for material science. Reasons like they couldn't get a really good, reflective, durable, read into yellow, showed up all night so for decades that was the general standard and then in the nineteen fifty they made read the official still. Ok. So- yellow, because you can make kind of a mat yellow in its contrast, really well with with black, for example, and looks really good at night. But until you get that shiny Red but you see on a stop sign. Read is not very good stops on color right and, if you think about lake, when you see a red topside and ate. It is really shiny and really reminded, and also by by that time too, you know we ve got to stop lying and other signage and read his really got this building
association of being a thing telling you to stop so making them read just come a fit with the grander scheme of of everything else that was go out time. It's a warning covering uterus, both yellow is too but Guy mix. It makes sense. So how does this you'll get us to those blue stop signs, and why that Daniel, oh right and that's how he come full circle or for it again as underground, and it turns out the blue painted stop signs are actually exceptional on purpose. Usually find them and private property places like store parking lot. In the reason their blue is so, they won't be confused with other official government, Red Zyobites Americans, those other, like intentional fakes because they don't want. It does seem like it's a sign, maintain both city or counties of the leg. Mall cops
They have a badge, they might have a gun, but they're they're, not actual gaps, yeah right like whether you actually decide to pay attention to what the signs telling you is a little bit up to you, but it is legally when it's trying to tell you right near me with one of things. I think it's so great about the storm sign is that, with the shape the word stop and the color you can really take, one or two of those elements, and at this point it will convey the meaning like if you had a red octagon with no words up on it. I think people generally stop right or if you saw you know, and octagon from behind you'll know that that's a sob, some other people have to stop young ones. No, it's a good sign, so they were onto something in Mississippi. Nineteen, twenty three and I figured something out. That's that's so cool yeah there yeah, I actually have. Another blue sign for you This one is actually that so much of an exception as the rule
a blue signed, but not a stop. Signs are what which, when you talk about right, so the one the ones I'm talking about. Are these big rectangular soup, recognisable ones that if you ve ever driven between cities, you have seen one of these there. Those big blue signs that tell you which businesses are at which acts oh yeah when you're travelling. These are the greatest signs ever because this is where you get to check out like if there's like an in help burger. Exit or you have to keep going, there's nothing good to eat exactly like their super easy to to recognize. You know you know what they look like. You know what they're telling you and their generally called specific service signs and there actually three different types of them and one of them. Is the one that you just mentioned, which is the main line sign, and that tells you where to get off for what and then there were these smaller ramp signs that you see when you drive up the offer, help
Then there are these smaller trailblazer signs and all of these are designed to rout you to be exact, place, you're trying to get so I've always kind of wondered like how those signs work. I mean new, who gets too on them, because not every business attacks, it is on one and they really do serve as your guide to the road. So how happen they are pretty standard. Looking From state to state, but the details of how they work can vary quite a lot, but the big idea is that businesses have to meet certain criteria to get a spot on these science. So, for example, they may need to be opened a certain number of hours per day and these per week and weeks for year they might have to have a certain minimum capacity for patrons a certain proceeds and bathrooms certain above parking spots and these requirements.
Can get really specific like restaurants in Kentucky have to be open and serve water problems. Seven a m to the ten p m while ok? So that's it? you were great so that you'd know that there is a basic level of service, and so do you get on the sign. If you meet those requirements basically well, it depends in part on demand in someplace is businesses have to get at the back of a line basically and wait to get their spot on the sign. They also have to do versions of their logos that bit within the dimensions of the box, which of course here standardized on the sign and then depending upon location and the size of the sign in the type of sign, it actually have the pay, hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to get a prime placement. I wanted the how things really is like a paid advertise matter.
It is but there's someone who wants to it to lake and worried and their discount for non profit organisations that what space on a sign and the caliph here. Some of the sign revenue get set aside and put towards creating and maintaining rest areas, which is a really nice public service in some of us, are just geeks, and we like learning about these but for people who are on the road a lot? This is really useful. Information right You know when you look at the sign, if you know the rules for the state, you know what to expect from a stop that the businesses there will offer certain things and be opened at certain times and be given a certain distance to the exit and all that's really handy. If you're somebody, you spend a lot of time on the road and if you're really thirsty in Kentucky, you know if you see him had sign. You can pull over and get a drink. That's right
but only for fourteen hours a day, so we're gonna pull off the freeway big. Signs onto the kind of a rule route highway for our next ubiquitous and in this is really kind of not so much an icon object. That became an icon and it is the mailbox in its two specific kind of mailboxes that all flat, bottomed, rounded top little red flag on the side of you live in the? U S, and definitely seen one of these raise your lower the flag. If you have how going I mean this thing is truly ubiquitous bright and even if you don't live in the, U S, you no, what they look like, because you seen them in graphic format using them in pictures. These things became a digital like on a long time ago, but in terms of the Physical box. Well, it's a pretty simple and elegance
Lucien? But it grew out of this really long history of problems that the United States postal Service was having, and it didn't actually come out until one thousand nine hundred and fifteen, but to understand it. We you, go back and other half century or so to eighteen, sixty three and that's the year that the? U S PS, introduce free city delivery. So am I think, of the? U S postal services having universal so that you get male delivered. No matter where you are, we did a whole episode about that's what a threat, but you This'll access doesn't mean universal access to mail at your front door, and That was the sort of key innovation that that created a bit of a rift between city dwellers and people who didn't live in cities.
People who live in cities as our close together. They got their male delivered to their door, but people lived out in the country did not get that looks right ray and it makes sense right leg. They can go door to door much more easily on the city than they can in the country, and so this is, a boon to people who were living in cities. But if you think about when we are, you know in the eighteen hundreds most people are living in urban areas. At this point, there all spread out, and so the standard practice was that they will go to their local post office. If they wanted to pick up or send mail, now, which is why you see all these, like really beautiful little rural post offices round alibi, eight subscribed to a twitter account that just shows you pictures that we really level. I love it now meets EU. I love these. These tiny little post offices of all shapes and sizes, but of course, if you think about it from a practical standpoint, Now these people we are living in the countryside are totally thrilled that they're paying the same posted trades. Is people now
but aren't getting the same level of learning is right. Then I get his door to door service like city doors are now. I can imagine them getting pretty upset with that. So How did this tension eventually resolve right? So finally in eighteen. Ninety six, the European starts testing out rural free delivery that solves problems and created others, because suddenly where's and other people living outside of cities were just cobbling too, their mailboxes from whatever was heavy like mine, can be cut it's a cigar of access is basically beaches would take anything that was box like and pick. Up and mail lead to a post. I love it. I do to honestly, I can imagine that being a bit of a pain goes even to figure out like a viewer postal carrier, like is this thing nailed to opposed a mail box, or is it something else or is it link a peach basket for basketball, for example,
gray and everyone. You know they might open differently like enough. There's no standardization here until the use p s end up having to impose standards and they started requiring boxes, be purpose built for male that they made of metal resistant to snow and rain have some a flag or signal to indicate that those outgoing mail inside and, of course, that they be high up enough that they could be reached from vehicles? on top of all that they also had to be certain size dimensions because, of course, mail has actually these things so that promote describes the mailbox we're talking about two. So what if you didn't comply like what? If what would happen? If you you just kept your Lord can posted up. Well, you got a warning and that warning was that your services get cut off. If you don't get a compliant box and then you got
structural funds as to where you can get a compliant box, a dozen or so models that the? U S guests had bedded instead, ok, bees are suitable from male car, concentrated goods our Legged mean if it's not too onerous, are too expensive. Like at least I have a few options: yeah yeah was it it was a step in the right direction, but it also caused some other satellite home one of which was a conflict of interests, because suddenly your people would ask their male carriers will, which box should I get, and companies figured out hey, we could pay bees bill carriers, a commission to signal our box. So you know suddenly there is this kind of perverse incentive for male Kay to mark different boxes in that wasn't gonna work further USB s poorly taking kickbacks so disappointing area so like what did they do to to solve? That problem will be
Similarly, in the end, they said: ok, no more of this kind of picking out from Lester whenever they use piastres, turned inward to somebody. Who is already on staff guy named Roy, and they said Roy make a box and he made a wise the steady box he made one that was basically open source, a design that any company could legally taken bake answer this took the competitive aspect out of the equation, so there were still different companies building the boxes, but there wasn't any real. Incentive for somebody to recommend one option over the others, because they all had the same design, that's so cool and so forward. Thinking of the time to make it open, Worse so so, how did Roy come up with this imperfect mailbox design? That's become the icon.
Today. We have a lot of ways he built on what was already there, these guidelines of the? U S p s head set out, but he also focused on making them simple and cheap so that anybody could afford one. So his box has this arch, up to prevent snow and water from accumulating in the curve. Shape also mean mass production easier because turns out wrapping a curve is easier than precisely bending metal and then there's a classic front latch which helps protect the male inside. So in the end he took all of these, syria- and he made this thing with functional and durable and inexpensive and used as few moving parts as possible when you despise debris from, was a great designer and sounds like yeah yeah, fantastic So I see a tendency these more out in the country, I am sure of seeing them in cities too, in specially in suburbs.
So they really weren't just for world delivery that they really became the mailbox re unless, in part, because of this open source aspect, because the design had no patent, any company could just make them and because they worked well, a lot of companies did just that, and it also didn't hurt that the? U S p, as mandated that people use these boxes in rural areas for a while it was until the late seven he's actually that they started to relax their restrictions. And but people use a variety of box types. Yeah he's I definitely other ones. It's just that. I just see this one. A law rang, that's really outstanding. That's explains why What I mean, I guess one of the reasons why it's been so reinforced is that that this is on his defiling on Digital. I mean you, you see a profile of that type, a box around atop the little red flag. You know it
That means that means male, oh yeah, yeah, there's even an emerging called clues to bail box with red flag, ended, Absolutely super, obviously based on that classic design. That was you don't made over a century ago, so great, so we know boys last name. I believe it's your old man, a much and pronouncing that entirely right. So we might want to check the four wheel ere it, but, but you have already destroyed all men with this level. Idols cut it out. I just like daddy of Roy the bail guy. You know that their design these box, our hero for today, Roy. Who worked at the? U S and made that mailbox that we all know and love. That's all raise a little bail flag to that. Guy absolute
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rocket can get started online at rocket mortgaged outcomes. Last. Ninety nine, that's a numbers: nine, nine call for costs, information and conditions, equal housing, lender licence and all fifty states in M, O S, consumer access, dot, org number, thirty, thirty, So we're back with another story, and this one we actually included in the book. The nine percent visible city so actually know it ahead of time, and it concerns those. Reflective markers that you see you know, on the side of roads or between lanes lost of kinds, with lots of places around the world that they exist, but the most interesting character we discovered who worked in a very early version of these was a british inventor name. Percy Shaw and end with a lot of rate in origin stories, that details of persons breakthrough big, they kind of vary depending on who is telling the story, but they all have this one thing in common
started with him driving along a narrow road and a foggy night in the early nineties. Hundreds near his home town of Halifax and his brother told the story Percy was coming home from one of his usual hearts, a local pub as he drove around this sharp corner. He saw the reflective eyes of a cat alongside the road and because he saw that cat. He avoided driving his car off of a cliff and crashing, and but we don T normally pursued and rely on you good fortune and cats cross in his path to stay on the road he relying on tram lines in the road there. This, like the metal reflection from the tracks of of tramps. He would use Oser orient himself on the road, but they had been ripped up, and so he was stuck kind of squinting through the fog and that's when it came. To him that he would invent a way to solve this problem for himself and other drivers and not rely on cats anyway, very much in his nature. Percy had always
a picture in a tinker from a young age and he actually left school at the age of thirteen to help, is family make money and the ended up starting a paving business. And then finally, in nineteen thirty four, he patent hit this device that would reshape the roads of England and then eventually go global. So his design involved a pair of reflective glass, beads embedded in a cast iron frame. These retro reflective capsize. They redirected the light towards the cars with minimal Scatteringly really could see them. They they stood out in the in the dark night and, They were really sophisticated, like a metal part predicted the glass, but it also lowered when where's drove over him both for safety reasons and to create a noise. They learned the drivers with the noise, and probably my favorite detail, though, is that is little rubber wipers were added later. So. Basically, when the housing got pushed down, the glass would wipe up against the wipers and
and so the device was self cleaning This is really sophisticated, so it maybe obvious, but she didn't embed these overnight right. He try All these different designs, airy, iterated on them and one of my report to the story is how he approached this design development process, so instead of gig approval and you know having authorities. Sign up on him. Testing them out. He just went out inserted, adding his various prototypes to local roads.
Magruder labelling. So many agreements he did on a paving company writing to suit sir ripping off the roads and he would try out different design right or Europe currently suited to doing this that just about quite legally allowed, but even then he had another problem to which is that once he got this design together, he couldn't seem defined by errors until the Second World WAR came along and suddenly there wartime black out because of air raids. So nights are darker than ever. Drivers have been instructed to add dimmers, head lamps and do other things to do their visibility on the road and so accidents are happening and the government responds first by pain white lines, on the roads and on post to help people see night and then in a suddenly percy he's been asking together and so the government see they're interested. Has these cuts,
size that are just perfect right. They use illumination from cars tat to light up, so they don't sound like an independent source of light that would attract attention from the sky. And the next thing you know the government is buying, like forty thousand of these things are weak some accent I mean this is where the design spread their. So, though, places. They also came up with their own and indifferent solutions that to fit their regional needs like hearing. California is a huge state and there are a lot of climate ranges. There's like hot sunny places is cold and snowy. Places you eat. You need to use different markers in different places and different times, and some reflectors are your research? in into mountain roads, for example? So they don't, they don't get scraped up by plows innocently. There's lots of things you have to work on, and so these had been generated in and have different origins depending on where you are in the world right it. If you think about Perseus cats, eyes too
That was one of the things that made them work so well. Britain, like Britain, is foggy and rainy, and so these wipers were were particularly useful. So, in a way they were sort of you don't they could be universal, but they also were very pacific as a solution. No matter where you go. There is this. There is this type, that's more common than any other and its basically just a trap is all right. It's I'm ramp up on one side for a flat top and then a ramp down on the other side to conceal the two different directions, nibbling on which we are going down there. And is that does the job as Lord shape its use? No muttered from places a lot at the colors are are pretty common to so here, and you asked, for example, where the common have white reflectors to divide, lanes and yellow reflectors on on the edge of the road, but also their sexism variations. There too. So, like you can have greens and blues, they indicate things that are on the side of the road, so plug stocks were cops, can have a different color and like locations for fire hydrants too, to signal firefighter
are also different right and I love the fact that you, you don't typically noticed the color differences, like you see the reflectors, but some of them are like cute and tell different groups about what they can find and then there's this other deep function that they can serve to because of their trappers idle shape. They can have different colors facing different directions. So, for example, a reflector can have white on one side, and that tells you You know you're going the right way and then you can have read on the other side which links you're, going the wrong way much going the wrong way: agent, religious, just stop your car may He turned around slowly If there is one lesson from this from this show, it's that you see red, maybe stymie, started centres of Blue also, sometimes, but not always we go over all these different details and we talk about different designs and we found different places, but you will really tell the story through Percy Shaw and then the
and Percy became something of a local. I didn't how it backs. There's this plaque affixed to his old house, and his design one a bunch of design awards, but he never releasing to care about all that stuff and he did travel for work, but he preferred to mostly stay close to home and one of the few ways that you can have Don T tell he'd become this kind of rich and influential Kai. Was this rules, boys. Phantom and people would tell stories about, in writing round in it, driven by his chauffeur and offer just traveling to him from his favorite pub along those lines, these same roads that its fired him to correct this thing that made him they must in the first place, so You have it. This is one story over a hundred that we have in the book and in the nine imps amps invisible city with illustrations of all these things too, including perc's.
Its eyes and in a variation, cobalt starts which are really common in California in those trap as oil reflectors that we talked about as well- and this is definitely the kind of story you can expect from the upcoming book in general, who, like we talk about specific designs and places in character? as in all the ideas and lessons and in history that are specific to a place, but also have global implications and in global meaning exactly end, while you're waiting for your copy of said book I have also been writing up a bunch of articles about how the book was made and been answering a lot of since people have- and you know, a bit gatherings and some process materials from our illustrator pattern, Fail and are designer Rockville Geronium into assembling these until some some need, surprises and sort of behind the scenes pieces about how we made the book because, of course, where design show. So
We abstained in talking about design in the book, but we're are also interested in talking about the design of the book some of the process, the adoration that Rafael went through when he was working on the cover, for example, are super fascinating. I even forgot some of the different versions that he did and the pictures of the drawings that are so cool halfway check him out there all at nine ip I'd at work? And if you wanna toward the both directly, you just have to go to nine ip. I dot org slash book right thanks Kurt! Thank you so much earlier, but a blast. Ninety nine percent invisible was produced this week, but Kurt coasted with help from Emmett Fitzgerald music by shown Rio the winning hole is our senior producer to us. The team includes Vivian, lay crisp Ruby, Joe Rosenberg Katy, mingle, Abbe Madonna Soviet cluster. Christopher Johnson and me roman Mars. We are projected manual When seven k, L W in San Francisco GO produced,
on radio row is basically in our houses and apartments all around the country, but in our hearts will always be in vehicle. Downtown, Oakland. California, we are proud of Radio Tokyo from pure acts appears the independent collective of the most innovative lister supported podcast in the world furthermore, a radio Tokyo dot FM. You can meet me at Roman Mars and show at nine Org on Instagram and read it to you. Pre ordered the ninety nine percent invisible city at ninety nine p, I dot org slash book. We stole a few sign copies and includes coins available check on all the details. At nine p, I dot org, book and for all your other ninety nine p. I needs look no further than ninety nine p. I Donald. Radio do.
Transcript generated on 2020-09-15.